What’s in a name? — The meaning behind the Pope’s choice of ‘Francis’

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

He’s a Jesuit pope with a Franciscan name.

When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced that newly elected pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio “takes for himself the name Francisco” Catholics around the world were not only surprised but delighted. His papal identity honors St. Francis Assisi — an iconic figure in Church history known as a servant to the poor and destitute, a lover of nature, and preacher who embraced all humanity including people of other faiths.

The 13th-century saint is patron of Italy, animals, ecology, and merchants but is best known as founder of the Franciscan Order of the Friars Minor, and the inspiration for other communities referring to themselves as “Franciscan.” So it’s no wonder that Father Larry Uhlman, a Third Order Regular Franciscan priest was pleased with the new pontiff’s name.

“As a Franciscan, I was touched in a very special way,” says the associate pastor at St. Maria Goretti Church in Arlington. “It’s significant that St. Francis of Assisi was a man called by God to rebuild the Church and he did it through a life of poverty, simplicity, a love for God’s people, and a love for God’s creation.”

By choosing to honor St. Francis, the new pope may indicate a desire to bring people back to the essential Gospel values — love of God and love of neighbor, the friar suggested. There’s also a universality to St. Francis that appeals to other faiths. A less known fact about the saint is his attempt to convert the Sultan of Egypt. A three-week dialogue failed but left both men with mutual respect for each other.

“The Sultan didn’t convert to Christianity. He remained Muslim but let Francis go free and said if more Christians were like Francis, things would be different,” the associate pastor explained. “So maybe this Holy Father is going to reach out even more than his predecessors to the Islamic faith in a gesture of good will.”

Fisher-More philosophy/theology professor Taylor Marshall initially thought the new pope, a Jesuit, chose the name Francis to honor St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century missionary saint who co-founded the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits.

“St. Frances Xavier is one the greatest missionaries of all time so I thought it made sense because of the New Evangelization,” Marshall said using a term that describes the Church’s effort to bring Catholicism into the marketplace of the modern world especially to alienated Catholics.

A Vatican spokesman later confirmed the pontiff’s name honored Francis of Assisi — the medieval child of privilege who renounced his wealth to serve the poor. After hearing the words, “Francis, rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin,” from a crucifix at San Daminao, the saint became a spiritual reformer and received permission from Pope Innocent III to organize the Franciscans.

Marshall, author of a history on the papacy entitled, The Eternal City: Rome & the Origins of Catholicism, said by picking a name never used before, the pope may be signaling something different for the church. Nothing will change theologically, he insists, “but I think there’ll be a simplification and humbling of the Catholic Church before the world.”

Father Edmundo Rodriguez, SJ, a spiritual director at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Dallas, never thought a member of his religious order would become pope.

“The Society of Jesus thinks faith and justice go hand in hand and, in some places, that’s very controversial,” the priest explains. “Many people believe justice belongs in the political instead of the religious realm.”

But the Holy Father’s Jesuit training is an advantage, he continues. The spiritual exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola and practiced by them, help connect God to the reality of people’s lives.

“It brings a spirituality that engages the world,” the retreat leader adds. “It’s a tool God gives us to better society as we march toward our final society — heaven.”

If the election of a Jesuit pope surprised Fr. Rodriguez, Cardinal Bergoglio’s decision to be called Francis did not.

“From what I know about his life as a priest and archbishop, it’s very appropriate,” he opines noting the prelate’s austere lifestyle and penchant for riding public transportation and cooking his own meals. “He’s a man who genuinely cares for the poor and travels with working people. He has the same charism as St. Francis of Assisi.”

When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced that newly elected pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio “takes for himself the name Francisco” Catholics around the world were not only surprised but delighted. His papal identity honors St. Francis Assisi — an iconic figure in Church history known as a servant to the poor and destitute, a lover of nature, and preacher who embraced all humanity including people of other faiths.

Published