Humility, humour and simple kindness in Francis

  • March 22, 2013

Like most everyone, I’ve been fascinated and delighted with the election of Pope Francis. His simple, gracious acts during his first days on the job bode well for the Church.

I love the stories of his humility. From his genuine concern for the poor and disenfranchised to personally paying his hotel bill the day after his election to phoning people directly instead of having assistants place the calls. There is a hilarious YouTube video of a young Italian man who answered the phone at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome and heard the new Pope on the other end of the line asking if he could speak to the man’s Superior General. The young man tells how nervous he was speaking to the Pope and Francis simply asked how he was and that he should relax.

It has also been fascinating watching the papal story unfold in the mainstream media. Here is a synopsis of the media story line over the first week: Great excitement, new Pope is a breath of fresh air, he is mandated to clean up the Vatican Curia, then the media turns and tries to dig up dirt on Francis — i.e. allegations he did not do enough to help Argentines during the years of that country’s military junta in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

In the middle of this, the mainstream media also take shots at Church doctrine from priest’s celibacy, opposition to gay marriage and women priests, and more. Sprinkle in a few pokes at the Pope Emeritus and that about sums up the mainstream media coverage over the first week of Francis’ papacy. (By the way, Register associate editor Michael Swan made some valid points last week that history may well remember Benedict as a reformer and not the anti-liberal he is painted as today.)
No doubt the media have it right that a so-called Vatican outsider like Francis (first pope from Americas, first from Southern Hemisphere, first Jesuit, etc.) will make changes in the Curia. And I have an idea for one priest he should hire: Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest from the United States. I’ve written about him before because to reinvigorate Catholicism he believes we need to touch the Church’s funny bone more often.

And there are signs Francis may think the same way; humour and humility have more in common than just their first letter. At his first formal news conference, a laughing Francis told the media that in the conclave after his election, but before he was revealed to the world, a cardinal suggested he take the name Clement XV to get even with Clement XIV who suppressed the Jesuits in 1773.

Some of the clearest papal commentary comes from Fr. Martin. And until Francis’ election, Martin may have been the most well-known Jesuit anywhere, certainly in North America. He has written several books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, appears on various TV programs, and has a Facebook page with 23,000 likes and a Twitter account with 22,000 followers and growing. (Playing on a Second World War British slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” Martin tweeted this week “Keep Calm and Hire a Jesuit.”)

Martin writes that he was as stunned as other Jesuits that one of their own became Pope because, though the Jesuits are the largest Catholic religious order, they are most certainly not mainstream in the Church.

“Clearly the cardinals were looking for something, and someone different, and so his very otherness may have been appealing. Particularly in light of the ‘Vatileak’ scandals, the cardinals may have been searching for someone who could take a fresh look at things and move the bureaucracy in a new direction. On St. Peter’s balcony, as he addressed the crowd, Pope Francis joked about his Latin American origins. It seemed, he said, that the cardinals had to go to the ‘ends of the Earth’ to find a pope. But often someone from the margins is just what the centre needs,” Martin wrote.

So, as Francis shakes up the Curia maybe he’ll see a larger role for humour in helping to communicate the role of the Church in today’s modern world. And if he’s looking for a “Vatican Jester” his fellow Jesuit and author of Between Heaven and Mirth and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything would fit the bill.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@

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