What's in a Name?

By C; Moss, Ida | Newsweek, March 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

What's in a Name?


C, Moss, Ida, Newsweek


Byline: Candida Moss

The new pope's choice of 'Francis' hints at the direction of his reign.

Enter Pope Francis. The first Jesuit pope. The first from Latin America. It is, indeed, a historic moment for the papacy. Those who waited for a leader from the new Catholic world will no doubt be thrilled by the choice, but his new status as the leader of a global church requires a different persona and a new mode of action. The new pope speaks not only for Argentina, Latin America, and the Jesuits, but also for the entire Roman Catholic world.

It is precisely for this reason that cardinals shed their names along with their brightly colored vestments. Historically, the tradition of selecting a new papal name dates back to the sixth century, when Pope John II swapped his awkwardly pagan name Mercurius for the solidly Christian John. At the same time the selection of religious names is more than an opportunity to symbolically cast aside individual identity. Papal names chart a course for the future by summoning up the past. The new pope assumes either the mantle of religious heroes and leaders from days gone by or the virtues of the Innocents and the Piuses. The selection of the name both forges a new identity and signals how the pope wishes to be seen and remembered. It is, in essence, not only the answer to the classic question "Who do you want to be when you grow up?' but also a way of preemptively writing one's own reviews.

Traditionally popes have been wary of reaching too high, of appearing too self-congratulatory. The office of the pope is built, literally and metaphorically, on the legacy of St. Peter, the apostle of Christ, whose remains lie beneath the papal seat in the Vatican. But there has been no Pope Peter II. Thus far, no pope has had the audacity to present himself as standing in continuity with the favored disciple of Jesus. Nor would Pope Francis have been able to select the name of the founder of his own order. A Pope Ignatius--after Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola--would have appeared self-serving.

At first blush, Pope Francis's selection of a previously unused papal name--he is no 23rd anything--marks a break with the past and augurs well for those looking for a move away from deeply entrenched institutionalism. The new pope symbolically clears the deck for a new period of Catholic history. For a church desperately in need of an administrative makeover, it creates a nominally blank slate for the pale-garbed pontiff.

While there are a number of prominent saints named Francis, the pope's name resonates most strongly with, and has been confirmed by Vatican officials as a gesture to, Francis of Assisi, the founder of the eponymous order of Friars. Franciscans are enormously popular in Rome, and, by selecting the name of the founder of a religious order different from his own, perhaps Pope Francis wishes to imply that he is no partisan. Despite being a Jesuit and thus part of a religious order that possesses both strong ties to the papacy and a staunchly independent streak, Francis is suggesting that he is a pope for all brands of Catholicism. Any anxiety among the old guard about the increasingly liberal tilt of the Jesuits may be eclipsed both by Cardinal Bergoglio's personal history and by this very public announcement of his connection with a different order.

St. Francis of Assisi himself is one of the more famous and beloved saints. The son of a medieval cloth merchant, he joined the military after the cliched misspent and hedonistic adolescence of the type favored by wealthy young Italian men of the era. Having left the military after a period of imprisonment and sickness, Francis underwent a spiritual conversion. He had a famous vision in the Church of St. Damian in which Christ came to life three times on the cross and instructed Francis to repair his ruined church. The commission was, according to Benedict XVI, an instruction to rebuild a church undermined by "superficial faith. …

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