WASHINGTON – For his name as pope, Jorge Bergoglio chose one that harks back eight centuries to St. Francis of Assisi, 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.
It was a bold move. There has never been a Pope Francis. For the record, the Vatican said Wednesday that the name is Francis and nothing more — there is no Roman numeral after the name.
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.”
Simply by taking a name that 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 had 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 in Philadelphia.
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. 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.
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.”