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updated: 3/13/2013 11:57 PM

'Francis' name choice reflects commitment to the poor

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  • A Catholic nun sings as people gather Wednesday outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis, is the first pope ever from the Americas.

      A Catholic nun sings as people gather Wednesday outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis, is the first pope ever from the Americas.
    Associated Press

 
By Joel Achenbach/The Washington Post

For his name, he chose one that harks back eight centuries, to Italy, and to a man who renounced a life of privilege, gave away everything he owned, wore a coarse woolen tunic, lived in a hut and took a vow of poverty.

This was a bold move for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to tell his fellow cardinals that he would take, as pope, the name Francis. There has never been a Pope Francis. For the record, the Vatican said Wednesday that the name is Francis and nothing more -- there's no Roman numeral I after the name.

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Initially it was not entirely certain that Bergoglio had named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, because there are other Francises in the church's long history, including St. Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary. But Vatican deputy spokesman Thomas Rosica dispelled any ambiguity, according to CNN: "Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice."

Bergoglio is a Jesuit, not a Franciscan, but his chosen lifestyle has a distinctly Franciscan quality to it. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he gave up many of the luxuries he would have enjoyed in that position. He had no driver, rode the bus, cooked his own meals, and lived in a simple apartment rather than a palatial home.

A Franciscan couldn't have taken the name Francis, said Chad Pecknold, assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America.

"It would have been seen as not sufficiently humble to take the name of the founder of the order. Whereas a Jesuit can choose to be named after St. Francis without that problem," Pecknold said.

Pecknold was stunned when he heard Bergoglio's name announced as the new pope -- the Argentine was not considered among the favorites -- and stunned again when he heard that the pope had taken the name Francis. One of his first thoughts was that the most recent two popes, Benedict XVI and now Francis, have taken names associated with the founders of religious orders. Religious orders, said Pecknold, "have often been seen as the seeds for renewal."

"What Benedict and Francis both communicated is that, yes, reform is needed, but it will be the kind of reform that these great saints have brought," Pecknold said. "I think he's going to be the people's pope. We often associate St. Francis with incredible love for humanity."

Simply by taking a new name -- one no pope has ever used -- Bergoglio might also be sending a message that change is on the way for the church. There is a strong tradition in the church of taking names of previous popes. John Paul I, in 1978, broke with tradition when he combined the names of men who preceded him as bishop of Rome. Before that, one has to go back more than a thousand years, to Pope Lando of the early 10th century, to find a pope who took an entirely new name.

"That's a novelty in an institution that often doesn't have a lot of novelty, and I think that's telling," said Jonathan Seitz, a historian of early modern religion at Drexel University.

Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1181 or 1182. He was the son of a cloth merchant and a noblewoman. As a young man he had a vision of Christ while praying in a grotto and later made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he spent time among beggars and lepers. A key moment in his religious conversion came when he was praying before a crucifix in a ramshackle chapel at San Damiano, near Assisi. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Francis heard a voice from the altar saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."

He took the command literally and repaired the chapel. Eventually he embraced a life of poverty, renouncing his worldly possessions. He soon had a small band of followers who, like Francis, had given all they owned to the poor. In 1209, with the approbation of Pope Innocent III, he founded the Friars Minor, the seed of what is now commonly called the Franciscan Order, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

For Bergoglio to take the name Francis signals that, as pope, he will focus on social justice and global inequality, said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, an interfaith organization that advocates financial reforms.

"The name is absolutely incredible. St. Francis is the saint of the poor. He's the saint that's known to stand up for peace and for justice," LeCompte said.

Of the new pope, he said: "He's been walking the walk. It's a different kind of thinking in the church when you give up some of the wealth and privilege and try to be as much as possible in solidarity with the poor."

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