URI history professor describes similarities between Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. — Sept. 24, 2015 – He wears a plain white priest’s cassock instead of papal robes, lives in a small apartment outside the Vatican and takes the bus. Oh, and he wears clunky orthopedic shoes instead of the traditional papal red slippers.


Pope Francis strives to lead a simple life so it’s no surprise, says a University of Rhode Island history professor, that he chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in poverty.


Joëlle Rollo-Koster, of South Kingstown, who teaches medieval history, says the parallels between the modern-day pope and early 13th century Roman Catholic friar and founder of the Franciscan Order are striking.


St. Francis was devoted to helping the poor; two days after his 2013 election, Pope Francis, whose birth name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, said he wanted a church that is “poor and for the poor.” St. Francis loved and protected nature; Pope Francis has sounded the alarm about climate change and spoken out against environmental degradation.


“The similarities between the two men are profound,” says Rollo-Koster. “St. Francis was a radical, and Pope Francis is considered something of a radical too.”


Rollo-Koster is an expert on the papacy, especially in the Middle Ages. In her last interview with URI, she explained why the resignation of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was possible. (Short answer: Pope Celestine V paved the way with his resignation more than 700 years ago.)


This time, Rollo-Koster is moving ahead to the modern-day papacy, discussing Francis’ concerns over global poverty, his impact on Catholicism and other religions, and more:

What are your impressions of the pope during his visit to the United States?


Francis has a relaxed and unassuming way of relating to people. He’s like a rock star. People want to see and touch him. This disregard for protocol is something that is embraced by Francis and the American public – and that’s fascinating to me. The Catholic Church is based on ritual and etiquette, and now Francis is dismantling that structure. He is coming to a country with a reputation for freedom, and he is showing his free spirit. During his visit with President Barack Obama, he rode in a Fiat 500 rather than in one of those big black cars provided by security. That probably shocked the social secretaries back at the Vatican.

The pope played a key role persuading the United States and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties. Historically, is it common – or unusual – for popes to serve as diplomats?


Throughout history the popes have served as diplomats. It could almost be described as their natural function. From the early years of Christianity popes used the respect for their position as a negotiating tool. One of the earliest examples comes from the so-called founder of the medieval papacy, Leo the Great. Leo established the superiority of the bishop of Rome over other bishops that eventually led to the papacy. In the 450s, Attila the Hun conquered a good part of Eastern and Western Europe. Arriving in Rome he was met by scared citizens who supported Leo. He was not called the Great yet! Leo entreated Attila to leave Rome, and Attila left. After this event, Leo was renamed the Great! During the Middle Ages popes or their envoys – called legates – traveled European roads to appease political foes. Their activities climaxed during the so-called Hundred Year Wars when legates tried to stop – to no avail – some of the major battles. So, yes, there is a long tradition of diplomacy that finds its roots in early Christianity and continues today.

Do you think the pope should help resolve other conflicts? Should he encourage Europe to help the thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria?


In my opinion a religious leader has a moral obligation to appease the woes of the world. So, yes, religious leaders should strive to find ways to negotiate peace. There is also a legacy of Christian violence in the Middle East – the Crusades, for example. Back then, the Catholic Church created some chaos in that part of the world, so it would be noble to help now. Francis might be willing to intervene, but other parties need to be willing to come to the table too.

The pope has forgone many trappings of the papacy – the red papal slippers, for one. What do you think he is trying to accomplish by leading a simple life?


He may have forgone it in his life but I promise you that the odds are high he will be buried with the red slippers. Here, the issue of trappings brings us back to St. Francis of Assisi. The pope chose Francis as his namesake to show his detachment from the material world. St. Francis’ renunciation of material things was a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity. Let me explain.


At a time when Europe was in the early throes of urbanism and capitalism St. Francis said no to materialism, money and wealth, arguing that the love of money conflicts with the love of God. St. Francis argued that Christ held no personal property. Following in the steps of Jesus, St. Francis preached “absolute poverty” for himself and his followers.


After St. Francis’ death, Pope Nicholas in 1279 made that same commitment to poverty for the new Order of Franciscans. Nicholas established that Christ and the apostles had lived without individual or communal possession; they had used property but rejected its possession. In short, Franciscans had usage of goods, but they did not own them; the Church did. At the beginning of the 14th century, Pope John XXII changed the decree after extremist Franciscans preached utter destitution. The Franciscans split into two groups – the extremists were accused of heresy and persecuted and the more complacent group survived and was allowed ownership of goods.


This may sound like a boring theological discourse but it sheds light on how fundamental the issue of poverty is to the Church’s history. Over the years, the Church has become very wealthy, as the largest landowners in the Middle Ages to the richest bankers in the world today. Pope Francis is trying to keep a balance and avoid bringing the old debate over poverty back.


The modern Church has been accused of many things, from sex scandals to money laundering, and Pope Francis’ unabashed attachment to poverty is a signal that it is OK to return to the original apostolic life. Christianity is based on a poor carpenter; a man who abandoned material goods for the spiritual world; a man who rejected money and its trade; a man who preached apostolic poverty. Pope Francis’ return to poverty is a symbol of his attachment to the true message of Christianity, but also a rebuke of the wrongdoings of the ecclesiastical institution.

The pope is also humble. Is that an unusual characteristic of a pope?


Yes, and in the past popes who were too humble were accused of not being pope enough. Several popes had been monks, and they lived a very frugal life, like Francis. They were quite often accused of not knowing how to keep their rank. When pope Clement VI was elected in 1342, he succeeded a very frugal Benedict XII. According to a medieval author, one of the first things Clement said, in an obvious reference to Benedict, is: “Predecessores nostri nesciverunt esse papa” (Our predecessors did not know how to be pope). The point is this: Frugality is good but too much of it could lead to a loss in stature.

The pope has criticized the curia – the governing body of the church – for infighting and careerism? Is he the first pope to do so?


Certainly not. Buying in, competing, posturing, betraying and infighting for positions are all part of ecclesiastical history. And I do not think that any ecclesiastical historian could argue to the contrary. For centuries, people have competed for career positions in the Church. The papacy created the first tentacular bureaucracy; jobs created income and put food on the table. Anyone dealing with the papal bureaucracy had, for example, to pay many fees, and grease the palm of bureaucrats. We have many instances of criticism and complaints in medieval documents. Red tape, backstabbing and careerism are as old as the institution.

Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first Latin American pope and the first non-European pope in 1,000 years. He is enormously popular throughout the world. Why?


By being the first of all of these (Jesuit and non-European) he gained the support of a very large part of the world – the non-European world that probably remains more committed to Catholicism than many Europeans. Plus, he is a charismatic man that speaks Spanish, the language of a good chunk of the world.

Some say Pope Francis’ views on key social issues differ significantly from the church. Asked about his view on gay priests, for example, he said, “Who am I to judge?” Is his focus more on mercy than moralizing?


I am not a theologian, philosopher or moralist, but it seems to me that the pope is reverting to the acts and words of Jesus (according to the Gospels) and not to the utterances of the Church. Jesus forgave many in the Gospels. Speaking of the sinner Mary Magdelen, he said: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In a sense, Francis is not condoning homosexuality, but by approaching it through the angle of “Who am I to judge?” he finds a way of accepting groups marginalized by the Church back into the fold.

One final question: The pope’s white cap often blows off his head with a gust of wind. What happens to those caps? Finders keepers?


The cap is actually called a zucchetto. I would say the finder can turn the cap into a relic and build a sanctuary around it to become a shrine and pilgrimage center for followers. That’s a great way to generate income for the Church – and local communities.


Joëlle Rollo-Koster is available for media interviews and can be reached at 401-874-4089 or joellekoster@uri.edu.