The life of Pope Francis’ namesake

At a time when the Catholic Church was sinking into opulence and pomposity, a powerful religious countercurrent formed in the High Middle Ages: beggar-monks like Francis of Assisi, who preached abstinence and humility. A profile of the religious leader who has become the new pope’s namesake.

Editor’s note: After his election to the papacy this week, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose Pope Francis as his name. It’s an homage to Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Catholic friar and preacher who founded the beggar-monk movement through his Franciscan order. He emphasized a life of asceticism and humility, and created a powerful voice for the poor the church couldn’t ignore. SPIEGEL’s history magazine, SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, published the following article about the influence of the new pope’s namesake in 2010.

It was one of those nights when young people made their happy, noisy way through the streets of Assisi. With a good meal and more than a few rounds of drinks behind them, they danced and sang loudly as they navigated the alleyways of this central Italian town.

Not all of Assisi’s residents were amused. One commented sourly that the young people had “filled their stomachs to bursting and now are despoiling the city squares with their drunken songs.”

This particular group of merry youths was headed up by one Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, known as Francesco, around 22 years old at the time. The scion of a wealthy and well-respected cloth merchant family, Francesco had a penchant for extravagant clothes and enjoyed the good things in life. As a sign of his elevated position among the other young men, he was never seen without a walking stick swinging jauntily from his hand, and he was well-liked thanks to a propensity for picking up the group’s tab after a night of revelry.

Francesco’s inebriated companions took no particular notice when their leader lagged behind on this particular evening. When they did finally realize and turn back, they found Francesco lost in an ecstatic reverie, as if struck by lightning, in the middle of the street. “Suddenly he was visited by the Lord’s spirit and his heart filled with such joy that he could neither speak nor move,” one chronicler later wrote. Continue reading



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