So, What's in a Name?

Francis Evokes Tradition and Innovation

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

On Wednesday, not only did the world receive a new pope, but also a new papal name with Pope Francis. An interesting and revealing selection, the name Francis evokes both tradition and innovation, qualities evident even in the short greeting the new Pontiff offered the joyful people of Rome.

A pope first changed his name in 533, when a man with the unfortunate given name of a pagan god (Mercurius) opted to carry the name of John II to the papacy. Since then 21 men have chosen this venerable and most popular of papal names (after all John was the disciple Jesus loved best.)

For the last thousand years almost every pope has changed his name — with perhaps the exception of Julius II and Marcellus II (the last pope to not change his name.)

In the modern era, after 12 Piuses, 15 Benedicts and 13 Leos the most recent innovation in papal names was John Paul I, combining two tried-and-true favorites and charting a clear course for the Church after the Second Vatican Council.

We must go back to the ninth century to see popes using their given names — Popes Lando, Marinus, Romanus and Formosus were men chosen to lead the Church, and who did so with the names given them at birth. By 1050, every pope bore a number after his name.

Although the new Pontiff chose a name with an 800-year-old history, he is clearly thinking out of the box.

While popes usually give an explanation for their choice of name, the richness of this fascinating choice merits a closer glance.

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was born in the rugged region of Umbria and in his short life revolutionized the world’s spirituality with his radical imitation of Christ.

This Alter Christus “another Christ” was a witness to the Gospel with his entire life, living in the joyful love of poverty. St. Francis was a famous preacher, but knew that the example of his life would often speak louder than words.

Over the days leading up to the conclave, the cardinals spoke of the need for a pope of great witness and joy — one who could kickstart a new evangelization. The first glimpse of Pope Francis, with his wry humor, kind smile and serenity amid the delirious gathered in the square, would lead us to expect a man who will use his daily life as a constant witness to Christ.

Already as archbishop of Buenos Aires his simple life and customs impressed all who met him and even as he appeared in the simple white cassock without the red mozzetta of previous years, he underscored this love of simplicity.


While many might think of St. Francis as an innocuous tree-hugging saint who hung around with poor people, this patron of Italy was a radical and unsettling reformer who rejected all that his world held dear.

His father was wealthy and had worked a lifetime to give Francis a privileged life. Francis eschewed all that his society considered important — money, economic stability, possessions, comforts and pleasures — and repeatedly rejoiced in being taken for a fool.

Pope Francis’ rejection of the worldly has been part of his life for years, but he has also turned away from other aspects of the modern world that many claim are rights or necessities. He has put up a staunch defense of marriage and the unborn, fighting a culture that perceives abortion and homosexual “marriage” as a “right.” As with Francis, what many contemporaries take as amenities of their “evolved” culture, the new Pope rejects.

Finally, the name of Francis bridges the Old World and the New. The new Pope is the first to come from the Jesuit order founded by St. Ignatius in 1534 and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. The founder had a particular devotion to St. Francis and in their first church, the Gesù, one of the most important altars was dedicated to St. Francis, a model for Ignatius and his followers.

Francis’ followers brought the Gospel to the new world, followed in short order by the Jesuits. As missionary saints and martyrs, they evangelized the recently discovered lands.

Four hundred years later, those seeds sown with blood and sacrifice have borne a great fruit, Pope Francis, to whom Catholics all over the world will now look, as they did once with St. Francis and St. Ignatius, to “set the world on fire.”

“All Roads Lead to Rome”

The great sacrifices embedded in the dense history of Jesuits were immortalized more than once by G.K. Chesterton. Already at 18, he wrote a poem to the famous Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, which contained the seedlings of his future conversion; later in 1936, he wrote the beautiful verses dedicated “To the Jesuits.”

Saturday, March 16, on the eve of the installation of the first Jesuit Pope, the American and Italian Chesterton Societies will hold an all-day conference at the Oratorian church of Chiesa Nuova.

“All Roads Lead to Rome,” draws on the theme of Chesterton’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and his great contributions to the Church with his prolific talents.

One of the main reasons the conference is in Rome is to commemorate the extended stay that Chesterton made to Rome in the winter of 1929. He stayed with his wife Frances above the Spanish Steps at the Hotel Hassler and came to know the city, and sought to describe its essence in his book, The Resurrection of Rome. The principal purpose of his visit was the beatification of 136 Catholic martyrs of England and Wales, which included many Jesuits.

At that critical time of reconciliation between the Church and the Italian state, which had wrested Rome away from Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1870, Chesterton had the opportunity to meet Pope Pius XI (as well as Mussolini) and this encounter with the city and the Pope himself helped him grow in his understanding of the universal church.

Chesterton later wrote “Then he [the Pope] made a motion and we all knelt and in the words that followed I understood for the first time something that was once meant by the ceremonial use of the plural; and in a flash I saw the sense of something that had always seemed to me a senseless custom of king. … I knew that something stood there infinitely greater than an individual; I knew that it was indeed ‘We’; We, Peter, and Gregory and Hildebrand and all the dynasty that does not die.”

Certainly the city and the world felt the meaning of “We” as we watched Pope Francis step out on the balcony last night as the 265th Successor of St. Peter.

Chesterton, who has garnered a worldwide following in a multitude of languages, fills the bill for the modern evangelization: brilliant, holy and a wonderful communicator to the world as it is today. Chestertonians, as his followers are known, see endless similarities in the challenges their mentor faced in an increasingly secular society and our own times.

Deacon Spencer Howe of the North American College, one of the organizers of the event, explained to me the pertinence of this author from a seemingly far away age, in an ahistorical world.

“Chesterton was a man who saw reality — and was able to communicate it in unforgettable ways. He was a prophet whose hundred-year-old books are still as pertinent, readable and clear as ever. Before all else he was a believer.”

The conference is held in Italian and English and starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, and is free. For more information visit

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Elizabeth Lev

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation