Is Pope Francis a Franciscan? To answer this it might be helpful to trace the roots of the Franciscan tradition, which began with the life, teachings, and spiritual insights of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
Francis of Assisi was not a trained theologian. He became acquainted with Catholic teachings through his local church and the Bible. Catholic teachings and his own personal spiritual insights and experiences prompted him to become aware of the poor, who were present in his society, and he became dedicated to serving those whom he believed were being excluded and who were most in need.
Francis attracted a remarkable following. He primarily influenced others through example. The saying "Preach the Gospel always; when necessary - use words." is attributed to Francis, who advised his brothers to "preach by their deeds."
In Pope Francis' The Joy of the Gospel he endorses a similar approach. Those who preach the gospel, he says, "should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet."
Francis of Assisi is an appealing figure far beyond the Catholic tradition due to his stance with regard to nature, his concern for the poor, and his example of how to dialogue with other faith traditions.
Francis of Assisi has frequently been endorsed by popes for his teachings and his example. In 1882, on the 700th anniversary of Francis' birth, Pope Leo XIII published the document "On St. Francis of Assisi." Leo describes Francis as a model Christian that everyone should imitate. Leo wrote that St. Francis was helpful to the people living in the 12th century, and just as helpful as a model in 1882.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis the "heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology." And when John Paul II invited the world's religious leaders to meet together and pray for peace, four times he chose Assisi for the meeting place (1986, 1993, 1999, and 2002). In a public speech, during John Paul II's first visit to Assisi as pope, he prayed to Francis and said "You, who brought Christ so close to your age, help us to bring Christ close to our age, to our difficult and critical times. Help us!"
Francis of Assisi's profound respect and appreciation for the natural world has found its way into Church teachings. In the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), when the topic of respect for the integrity of creation is addressed, there it says that "we should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi . . . treated animals."
Many people are familiar with Francis' poem "The Canticle of the Creatures" (1225), in which he praises God and God's creation and refers to all God's creatures - living and non-living - as brothers and sisters. As a proto-ecologist, in the poem there is even a stanza that praises "our sister bodily death." In the Catholic Catechism, in a section discussing the meaning of Christian death, the Catechism quotes Francis' stanza about death.
In the Church's Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching (2005), when respect and care for the Earth are discussed, Franciscan spirituality is singled out as witness "to this sort of kinship of man with his creaturely environment, fostering in him an attitude of respect for every reality of the surrounding world."
Aspects of Franciscan spirituality were heartily endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI, too. Benedict wrote that "In the light of the Gospel Beatitudes we can understand the gentleness with which St. Francis was able to live his relations with others." Benedict praises Francis' joy, simplicity, faith, love for Christ, and how he presents himself in humility to all and is an "artisan of peace."
Specifically about creation, Benedict in his 2009 encyclical wrote about nature and the Creator. And for his environmental initiatives, including in 2007 facilitating the Vatican in becoming the world's first carbon-neutral country, Benedict has been called "the greenest Pope in history."
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis examined "two great issues . . . fundamental at this time in history . . . the inclusion of the poor in society, and, second, peace and social dialogue." In the very center of this examination, Pope Francis mentions Francis of Assisi, explicitly by name, as a model.
Pope Francis is indeed a Franciscan pope. Yet he is not uniquely so, since previous pontiffs have also tried to incorporate elements of the Franciscan tradition. The difference is that Mario Jose Bergoglio has done it even more explicitly and comprehensively.
Benedict XVI and John Paul II appealed to Francis of Assisi as someone who could "help us to bring Christ close to our age, to our difficult and critical times." Because Francis of Assisi was a joy-filled peacemaker, closely in touch with the needs of his surrounding community - human and nonhuman - who embodied the essential Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, Pope Francis is making that same appeal.
Brother Francis worked to renew and revitalize what it means to be a Christian. Pope Francis is doing the same. "An authentic faith," wrote Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel, "always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The Earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters."