09/30/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

What Role Models for Pope Francis?

October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the much-beloved saint whose name Cardinal Bergoglio adopted upon his election as pope last March. It may be worth considering how the life of St. Francis (1182-1226) has been evident thus far in the papacy of Pope Francis, and how other figures, perhaps popes among them, may also be role models for him.

The son of a cloth merchant, St. Francis turned resolutely away from a life focused on accumulation of money, and instead embraced with joy a life of simplicity, poverty, humility, a life of work among and for the common people. Founding a new religious order of 'friars' or brothers, who would eschew the richly endowed lifestyle of many medieval monasteries, St. Francis promoted a new kind of religious order that was more present in the street and in the piazza, among the people, than it was withdrawn to the quiet of the cloister and chapel. It think it fair to say that Pope Francis has already, in a few short months as pope, shown that he shares such priorities, and that like the humble friar of some 800 years earlier, the Jesuit pope has heard a call to re-build and reform the Church he loves so much, a call to which he is responding in multiple ways. Naming himself a sinner, Pope Francis calls the Church to be more humble, to be slower to condemn, and quicker to forgive; he calls the Church to be an instrument of healing, through a radical re-imaging and re-imagining of itself as a field hospital, a kind of hospital specializing in urgent, emergency care, and one in which the wounded and the injured are healed of the wrongs that have been done to them. Criticizing clerical careerism, Pope Francis calls priests to renounce expensive cars and aloof, pretentious lifestyles, and instead to become good shepherds, rubbing elbows with the 'flock' and getting their hands dirty. Finely tailored clerical shirts and gold cuff links, and a haughty attitude to go with them, have little place in the papacy of man who drives a1984 Renault. Like St. Francis, Pope Francis understands that the poor among us are images of Christ, people to cherish and love, not a nuisance to be ignored or punished or thrown away. Like St. Francis, Pope Francis stands in firm and startling contrast to the selfish economic culture of his time.

On March 13, 2013, for the first time in many centuries, a newly elected pope chose a name never used before by a pope. But the choice of such a name does not necessarily mean that this pope has no role models among his predecessors as bishop of Rome. At least in his first months in office, Francis has demonstrated his affinity especially with two earlier popes: Paul III (pope, 1534-49), and John XXIII (pope, 1958-63).

Paul III took seriously the Church's need for reform, and in 1536 he appointed a commission of several cardinals and bishops and charged them with the development of a reform agenda for an eventual council. This commission produced a report in 1537 entitled Consilium de emendanda ecclesia (Advice on Church Reform), a report that played a significant role in preparing the way for the Council of Trent (1545-63) to treat such matters as better education of clergy, and for its articulation of a requirement that bishops be not absentee lords of the manor, but resident pastors devoted to preaching, teaching, and to visiting their dioceses. Unlike some popes in his era, Paul III recognized his need for advice, and he was not afraid of a council and of all that that implied for collegiality and for the sharing of responsibility for Church governance. The pope who first approved creation of the Society of Jesus, and its self-understanding as willing to be sent by the pope to all corners of the globe, Paul III is also remembered for his strong rejection of the practice of slavery in the Americas. Finally, Paul III was a pope who not only recognized that the Church needed reform, but also that he himself needed reform, as when, some years before his election as pope, he gave up his mistresses and a not very edifying lifestyle. Pope Francis has named a commission of cardinals to advise him on Church reform; he has recognized his own earlier mistakes, in particular, when as a Jesuit provincial he acted in an authoritarian and un-consultative way; and he has spoken out vigorously against a world economic system that enslaves workers while the rich grow ever richer.

Dispensing with the need for a miracle that could be attributed to Blessed John XXIII's intercession, Pope Francis has approved him for canonization as a saint. Francis demonstrates by this decision his exceptional admiration for the pope who called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a pope who combined a rather traditional piety of devotion to the Holy Family and to the saints, with a remarkable openness to other Christians and to other faiths, a pope from a humble family background--his relatives had been too poor to travel to Rome for his ordination as a priest--but who as pope gained a world-wide audience far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII spoke out for peace, and for justice for laborers. Born in a modest family of Italian immigrants in Argentina, Francis shares much with John XXIII, including election as pope at a relatively late age, but also much more than that, from devotion to St. Joseph, to impromptu pastoral visits, to a freedom for and an openness to change that many associate with youth but may in fact come with the wisdom of age and experience. Like John XXIII, Francis calls the Church and indeed all of us, believers and others, to give up self-righteousness and to make the conscience of a compassionate heart the center of who we are.