The United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba on Pope Francis’ 78th birthday, a day of celebration in Rome that featured a mass tango and the gift of eight sunflowers from the homeless whose cause he champions. A full day for the first Latin American pope, who played a critical and patient role in the secret U.S.-Cuban negotiations. Although the Catholic Church has been one of communism's most implacable foes – even as communist regimes have tried to crush the church – it has stayed engaged, in Cuba, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, keeping alive for Catholics not only their faith but their hope.
Francis named himself for Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), whom historian Lynn White called “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, [who] tried to substitute the idea of equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.”
“He failed,” White concluded in The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis. His “prime miracle [was] that he did not end at the stake.”
White argues that Saint Francis offered the church a radically different path, which it rejected and rooted out. Even as it canonized Francis, the church was already instituting the terrors of the Inquisition, and no pope subsequently dared to take his name.
I like to think that Francis I seeks to reclaim that alternative vision of the church, one grounded in humility, dedicated to humanity, and committed to inclusiveness – a spiritual voice we desperately need to hear in this world.