Why Did the Pope Choose Francis as His Name?


Watching Pope Francis cast his spell over America last week I found myself recalling the words of Shakespeare’s Juliet asking “What is in a name?”, or more precisely, why did Pope choose Francis to be his new name upon his ascendancy?  The common answer is that he was told by a friend to remember the poor, but that seems too superficial.   And perhaps equally curious, why have no other pontiffs in the past 800 years taken the name before?  It seems that Francis of Assisi, though the most beloved of all Catholic saints, was seen as just too revolutionary in the past, but that zeal is precisely why this pope chose the name, and it is in that spirit that he is leading us today.
To understand our Pope’s mission, one must review the often overlooked facts of the life of St. Francis, which are often obscured by hagiography and superstition.   Today he is often only remembered for taming wild beasts with a blessing and preaching to larks and sparrows.  But this narrow view does both the saint and ourselves a great disservice and diminishes his radical vision.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To understand St. Francis, we must put him in his proper context of the 12th century.  In the Middle Ages, Europe was a highly structured feudal hierarchy, largely illiterate, and struggling in subsistence poverty.   And the Catholic Church, was dominated by a monastic system that kept many priests and brothers locked behind the walls of their monasteries serving their God thru prayer.  The church orthodoxy was colored by St. Augustine who offered a bleak view of both human nature, and the world in which we live.   It was an otherworldly institution.

St. Francis entered into that world the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and determined to lead the charmed life of a romantic knight errant.   His first military adventure however was disastrous.  In a campaign against Perugia, his army was defeated after witnessing horrific butchery, and he was captured and spent over a year as a prisoner of war.   Upon his release, he made it home in terrible physical and mental health and isolated himself for almost 18 months in his bedroom.  Upon his apparent recovery, he was once again recruited to go to war, to which he agreed, but after only thirty days on the road, he secretly left his army camp, to return home a broken and dispirited man, already beginning to  turn away from the glory and honor of this world.
On his return journey, he stopped in a small church called San Domiano which was in disrepair.  He prayed for guidance before the crucifix when the image of Christ said, “Francis, rebuild my church”.   He took this to mean San Domiano.  He immediately sold his horse and armor to buy building materials, and living in the woods around Assisi and at the church, deriving sustenance from both.   Although the sources are sketchy, his father soon had him brought before the ecclesiastic authorities to repay him for the loss of his horse and armor, possibly to repay for some cloth he might have stolen for his church, and to renounce his claim to his mother’s dowry.  This Francis agreed to do to both before the entire town, when he renounced his father, taking off his clothes , giving them to him, and swore that only God in heaven he would call Father now.
Francis then spent the next two years alone working in a leper colony, which he once hated, but came to love, until he was finally joined by two other men.  They decided shortly to go to the Church of St Nicola and opened a missal on the altar and with Devine direction, pointed to three verses for instruction as to their mission.  Each time the verse instructed them to abandon all possessions and to follow the will of God.  Poverty was to be his guiding principal.    This was followed by a trip to Rome to see Pope Innocent for direction and sanction.  The Pope granted this after telling Francis that he had a dream the night before that the Lateran Basilica, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, was falling but that Francis had stepped forward to hold it up.  They were authorized to go forth, preaching the word of God in the world.
Already so early in St. Francis’s ministry, we can see the reasons for Pope Francis’s fascination.    First and foremost, St Francis had twice been told the Church was in need of repair.   For St. Francis, this meant creating an order that would live in the world, preaching the Word of God and not in an isolated monastery.  This was a radical notion.  For Pope Francis, this meant dealing with the sex abuse scandal, the rise of agnosticism and atheism, and the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic church in the world today.  Once again the Church needed rebuilding.
The guiding principal for St.  Francis was the emphasis on poverty after opening the missal.  But the point was not simply helping the poor, though this was done, but rather upon the notion of the Friars’ turning away from property and earthly possessions, and toward the will of God.     This anti-materialism also left an imprint on Pope Francis as evidenced by his railing against capitalist exploitation of the vulnerable and the obsession with profit at any cost, primarily in the United states and Europe.
And finally, we are reminded of St. Francis’s love of nature, his endless retreats to be alone surrounded by God’s creation, and his poetry where he sings of the power of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water and Brother Fire.   Could there be a more compelling inspiration of Pope Francis’s controversial encyclical “ Laudato Si” where he warns against global warming and our obligation to preserve this earth?
It seems that our Pope’s decision to take the name Francis was no caprice.  He knew exactly where he wanted to go, and was willing to embrace this provocative vision.  He dares to attempt to rebuild his Church in crisis, embrace the value of poverty by asking us to turn away from our obsession with financial gain, and reminds us that we have an obligation to protect and tend to our Mother Earth.

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