ROME (CNS) -- The new minister general of the Order of Friars Minor said the Franciscans are united, energized and challenged by the ministry of the new pope, whose name honors their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.
Pope Francis "has energized us, but he also has challenged us just by who he is," said U.S. Franciscan Father Michael Perry, who was elected May 22. The pope's "authenticity is challenging us to rediscover our own authenticity, and calling us to simplify our lives and to speak less and demonstrate more who we are."
It's not a matter of promoting the Franciscan "brand," Father Perry said, but of demonstrating that "simplicity of life means greater life for all people, it means greater access to all that people need to have dignity and survive on this small, tiny planet we have. It means respecting creation so that we do not destroy the environment in which we live."
Father Perry said he was at the Franciscan headquarters March 13, watching television coverage of the announcement of the new pope.
"When I heard the name that he chose, I physically started shaking," he said, "because this man has taken the name of the person we hold as a model who calls us to live faithfully the Gospel. And I started thinking how short we fall sometimes in living the Gospel."
Many Franciscans quickly went on the Internet and began doing research on the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to find out if what he was saying and doing was "something being invented to make everything look good," Father Perry said. What they found was that "in fact, this man has lived for a very long time what he is calling all of us to take on."
Father Perry, 58, who had served as the order's vicar general since 2009, was elected minister general by the order's general council and 27 Franciscans representing different parts of the world.
He was chosen to serve until 2015, completing the six-year term of Spanish-born Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, who in April was appointed secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Father Perry said the speed of his election -- just 25 minutes -- "was amazing. It demonstrated that we are together; there is a unity among us."
Even if it is not always easy to live as brothers, he said, "we know each other, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses."
Before the election, he said, the friars discussed the challenges and possibilities facing the order, a discussion that helped them focus on what they needed in a minister general. The election demonstrated "we have a common purpose, we have a sense of identity and a common history -- not to pull us backward but really to push us forward."
Although the 14,000 Franciscan Friars Minor represent only half the members the order had at its height in the 1960s, he said those who enter and stay today seem to have a stronger understanding of why they are making a commitment as Franciscans and what they want to do as Franciscans, especially in serving the poor, promoting peace and safeguarding creation.
St. Francis calls "us to see all of creation not as something inanimate, something outside of us, but it is part of who we are; it has a personality, it has a dignity," Father Perry said.
The Franciscan superior said he and his brothers don't mind at all that other Christians, people of other religions and even non-believers love and respect St. Francis and hold him up as an example for all sorts of good and holy causes.
St. Francis "brings us back to the very core of who we are as human beings," Father Perry said. "Francis is a convener of humanity, he helps people come together and see what really matters for their lives and that we can live together in peace, we can care for one another and we can care for our world."
In 2008, less than a year before his election as vicar general, Father Perry was elected provincial of the Franciscans' St. Louis-based Sacred Heart Province.
Father Perry had worked on African development for Catholic Relief Services, as an international policy adviser for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and as head of the Africa desk at Franciscans International at the United Nations. He spent 10 years as a pastor, teacher and development director for Franciscan programs in Congo.
A native of Indianapolis, Father Perry holds a doctorate in religious anthropology, a master's of divinity in priestly formation and a bachelor's in history and philosophy. He entered the Franciscans in 1977 and was ordained a priest in 1984.