Behind the Meaning of the Pope's Names

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The first Jesuit pope. The first from Latin America. Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Enter Pope Francis. The first Jesuit pope. The first from Latin America. It is, indeed, a historic moment for the papacy. Those who waited for a leader from the new Catholic world will no doubt be thrilled by the choice, but his new status as the leader of a global church requires a different persona and a new mode of action. The new pope speaks not only for Argentina, Latin America, and the Jesuits, but also for the entire Roman Catholic world.

It is precisely for this reason that cardinals shed their names along with their brightly colored vestments. Historically, the tradition of selecting a new papal name dates back to the sixth century, when Pope John II swapped his awkwardly pagan name Mercurius for the solidly Christian John. At the same time the selection of religious names is more than an opportunity to symbolically cast aside individual identity. Papal names chart a course for the future by summoning up the past. The new pope assumes either the mantle of religious heroes and leaders from days gone by or the virtues of the Innocents and the Piuses. The selection of the name both forges a new identity and signals how the pope wishes to be seen and remembered. It is, in essence, not only the answer to the classic question "Who do you want to be when you grow up?' but also a way of preemptively writing one's own reviews.

Traditionally popes have been wary of reaching too high, of appearing too self-congratulatory. The office of the pope is built, literally and metaphorically, on the legacy of St. Peter, the apostle of Christ, whose remains lie beneath the papal seat in the Vatican. But there has been no Pope Peter II. Thus far, no pope has had the audacity to present himself as standing in continuity with the favored disciple of Jesus. Nor would Pope Francis have been able to select the name of the founder of his own order. A Pope Ignatius—after Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola—would have appeared self-serving.

At first blush, Pope Francis's selection of a previously unused papal name—he is no 23rd anything—marks a break with the past and augurs well for those looking for a move away from deeply entrenched institutionalism. The new pope symbolically clears the deck for a new period of Catholic history. For a church desperately in need of an administrative makeover, it creates a nominally blank slate for the pale-garbed pontiff.

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Catholics celebrate the news in St. Peter’s Square. Guido Montani/ANSA/Corbis

While there are a number of prominent saints named Francis, the pope's name resonates most strongly with, and has been confirmed by Vatican officials as a gesture to, Francis of Assisi, the founder of the eponymous order of Friars. Franciscans are enormously popular in Rome, and, by selecting the name of the founder of a religious order different from his own, perhaps Pope Francis wishes to imply that he is no partisan. Despite being a Jesuit and thus part of a religious order that possesses both strong ties to the papacy and a staunchly independent streak, Francis is suggesting that he is a pope for all brands of Catholicism. Any anxiety among the old guard about the increasingly liberal tilt of the Jesuits may be eclipsed both by Cardinal Bergoglio's personal history and by this very public announcement of his connection with a different order.

St. Francis of Assisi himself is one of the more famous and beloved saints. The son of a medieval cloth merchant, he joined the military after the clichéd misspent and hedonistic adolescence of the type favored by wealthy young Italian men of the era. Having left the military after a period of imprisonment and sickness, Francis underwent a spiritual conversion. He had a famous vision in the Church of St. Damian in which Christ came to life three times on the cross and instructed Francis to repair his ruined church. The commission was, according to Benedict XVI, an instruction to rebuild a church undermined by "superficial faith."

Francis of Assisi is known for his stigmata—the wounds on his body that mimicked the wounds suffered by Jesus during the crucifixion—but even more so for his humility and assistance to the sick and poor. Even before his conversion, St. Francis reportedly sprinted after a beggar who asked for alms and, risking the ire of his entrepreneurial father, gave him the proceeds of a recently completed sale.

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In Duomo Square, a man reads up on the church’s new leader. Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

It is precisely to this history of care for the poor coupled with cultivated humility and deliberate evangelization that Pope Francis appeals. According to Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica, Pope Francis selected his new name because he "had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised," and "for those living on the fringes and facing injustice." His episcopal motto while in Buenos Aires was "Lowly, but chosen." Perhaps the selection of the name Francis says that though chosen, he remains lowly.

We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Pope Francis's intentions. This is a cardinal who lived a life of quiet simplicity, apparently opting for a small apartment rather than princely accommodations and for taking the bus to work rather than utilizing the service of a driver while at the Vatican. He cooked his own meals; he has washed the feet of AIDS patients at a hospital. The selection of the name Francis signals that he will continue to make poverty and ministry to the sick a priority in his leadership. Add to this the fact that he told supporters not to make the trip to Rome to see him, but rather to give the money they would have spent to the poor, and Francis may well turn out to be the people's pope.

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Believers congregated outside the Sistine Chapel during Francis’s first mass. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Saints have many sides, however. St. Francis is less renowned for his pioneering interfaith dialogue and bold efforts to evangelize, but given attrition in the Catholic churches in Europe and the pressing need for conversations with non-Christian political regimes, this aspect of his biography is at least as relevant as any other. Legend maintains that St. Francis traveled to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in a brazen (and unsuccessful) attempt to convert the sultan.

The same interest in courageous witness to God is evident in some of Cardinal Bergoglio's views. In 2001 he stated that the witness of the encounter with God was the critical element in communicating the central components of Christianity. Persuasion, he said, would never be able to achieve the same results. A real encounter with Catholicism and God is required. His opening speech as pontiff struck the same chord. He restated his belief in the need for Catholic evangelization, saying that he hoped the journey begun with his ascension to the papacy would be "fruitful for the evangelization of [Rome]." Such statements are very much in keeping with the New Evangelization movement of John Paul II, of which Pope Francis is a proven leader, and would place him in continuity with the mission of his two immediate predecessors. That both Benedict XVI and Francis selected the names of the founders of religious orders suggests that they both see the need for religious reform and renewal.

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Francis gave his first Mass as pope on March 14. Osservatore Romano/Reuters

If Pope Francis sees himself as standing in solidarity with his saintly namesake on issues of interfaith dialogue and evangelization, we can only hope he has the same blend of luck and charisma. St. Francis's immediate successors were less fortunate. Inspired by the actions of the founder of their order, a group of Franciscan monks, led by St. Berard of Carbio, were martyred while evangelizing in Morocco in the 13th century. They may well have known what they were getting themselves into, but the point remains: not everyone who has tried to walk in the shoes of St. Francis has been successful, and perhaps the new pope should tread lightly here.

So far, Pope Francis's actions lightly sketch a man interested in humility, poverty, uniting the Catholic Church, and starting afresh. Whether he will be the gentle saint who ministers to the poor, the gutsy evangelical who preaches uninvited, or both, remains to be seen.

Behind the Meaning of the Pope's Names | World