Neto's Tucson: Pope Francis? Late scholar might have flipped out

2013-03-17T00:00:00Z 2013-03-17T22:07:03Z Neto's Tucson: Pope Francis? Late scholar might have flipped out Arizona Daily Star
March 17, 2013 12:00 am

When I learned that Pope Francis chose his new name to honor a popular saint named Francis, a thought popped into my head: What would Padre Charlie have said?

It probably would have been something not fit to print.

The late Rev. Charles Polzer came to mind because Polzer, like the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, was a member of the Society of Jesus. Jesuit for short.

But when the Vatican said the name Francis is to celebrate St. Francis of Assisi, I'm sure I heard Padre Charlie grumble in his grave. Not surprising since Polzer grumbled a lot when he was alive.

Polzer, a noted historian of the Jesuits in the Spanish colonial Southwest, was a homer for everything Jesuit. He especially championed two men of the order: Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, who helped explore northern Sonora and Southern Arizona in the late 1600s and early 1700s; and St. Francis Xavier, one of the seven founders of the Jesuits in 1540, and the man whose name adorns the White Dove of the Desert, Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Polzer, who died in November 2003 in California after years of painstaking research, often complained that the two saints Francis were confused by the faithful and priests as well. In our Sonoran Desert, from Tucson to Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, Xavier and Assisi are frequently conflated. One wears a black habit, the other one wears brown. One is standing, the other is recumbent.

The Jesuits and Franciscans have long legacies in the Southwest. Kino founded a chain of missions in the land of the Mayos, Pimas and Tohono O'odham. But the Spanish Crown expelled the Jesuits from the Americas in 1767, and the Franciscans, founded by St. Francis Assisi, arrived soon after.

Franciscans built today's Mission San Xavier almost 100 years after Kino first visited the Tohono O'odham village of Wa:k.

So when the Jesuit cardinal took on the name of a Franciscan, Polzer probably would have said the pope doesn't know his Franciscos.

Of course, I really don't know exactly how the cantankerous Polzer would have reacted and neither does Bernard Fontana, who knew the prickly Polzer and worked with him at the Univeristy of Arizona's Arizona State Museum.

"As for Charlie, everything would have depended on how he was feeling when he got out of bed that morning," Fontana wrote me in an email. Fontana is a retired UA anthropologist and ethnohistorian, the premier expert on Jesuit-Franciscan history in the Southwest, and author of the comprehensive tome, "A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac on Mission San Xavier."

Polzer wrote about his frustration over the blurring of the two saints in an op-ed for this newspaper in 2002.

"I am more than a little perplexed at the way popular devotion and priestly permissiveness combine to distort history and tradition," Polzer wrote.

He wrote that Kino chose Xavier as the village's patron saint. Kino subsequently died in Magdalena, Sonora, while dedicating a chapel in recognition of St. Francis Xavier. Kino is buried there.

And here comes the rub that irked Polzer.

When the numerous faithful make their pilgrimage on Oct. 4 to Magdalena to complete their mandas to Xavier and visit Kino's grave, they are completing their promises on the feast day of Assisi. Xavier's feast day is Dec. 3.

"From Kino's time to this day, despite burnings of the reclining statue of Xavier, the lingering traditions are still adhered to even if distorted by clerics who understand neither the history of Xavier nor of Kino or the region," wrote Polzer.

Polzer surely would have clamored over the pope's choice of saint to honor.

Then again, maybe the new head of the Roman Catholic Church meant to honor another Francis - St. Francis Solano, a late 16th-century Franciscan missionary in Argentina and other byways of South America.

Wrote Fontana: "There's no shortage of Saints Francis."

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com

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