What’s in a name? Apparently everything! In those very first moments after he was introduced as the newly-elected Bishop of Rome to the citizens of the Eternal City and to the entire world (thanks to modern media technology), many individuals have speculated about, commented on, and nodded with approval at the choice made by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for his papal name: Francis. Although he is undoubtedly the 265th successor of St. Peter (the 266th pope), the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, and the Vicar of Christ, the new name communicates poverty, simplicity and humility.
In sacred Scripture, we hear time-and-again that God Himself calls people by name (Abram and Sarai, Simon and Saul) to follow and serve Him; in many instances, the Lord also gives them a new name (Abraham and Sarah, Peter and Paul) as a sign of their new life (vida nueva, nouvelle vie) and vocation.
During the early years of Christianity, when the Church’s papacy was only in the springtime of its existence, some newly-elected popes recognized that the names they had received at birth did not always reflect traditional Christian virtues and commitment. Therefore, at this critical moment in their lives, these popes began to change their given name in favor of a Christian name. The first to do so was Pope John II, whose given name had been Mercurious, a moniker with pagan roots. Throughout two millennia, popes have maintained this tradition, selecting a new name that is intended to reflect their new life and new vocation, an indicator of the values they hope to embody.
After which saintly Francis did our new Holy Father intend to name himself: Francis de Sales, Francis Xavier (a Jesuit himself), or Francis of Assisi? In his own words, Pope Francis confirmed that the name is a reverential reference and homage to Francis of Assisi. During the conclave, when it became clear that he had received the requisite number of votes (77) thereby succeeding pope emeritus Benedict XVI to the Chair of Peter, a brother Cardinal and dear friend turned to Cardinal Bergoglio, gave him a hug and a kiss and said, “Don’t forget the poor!” In response, the new Holy Father said, “…the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”
Pope Francis’ new name embodies his new vocation and the values he hopes and strives to embody—and from every early indication (through many, yet relatively simple, humble, common gestures)—he already does!
What’s in a name? Absolutely everything! In these first days of the Easter season, we are reminded that this is a time for new names! Children who are baptized are given names that reflect the likes, priorities, affiliations, and hopefully, the values of his or her parents; it is also a common practice for those who are to be confirmed to choose a “confirmation name,” that is, a saint’s name, as a way of expressing some aspect of the rich heritage that is our faith tradition.
Regarding each and every one of us who has been baptized into Christ Jesus, our ancestors in the faith said: “Christian is our name.” And it is fitting that we should have a new name. After all, our baptisms have made us into new beings (“neophytes”); we share new life in Christ; we, too, are called to fulfill our common vocation to holiness by following in the footsteps of Christ. And our Church and world are blessed to have so many holy women and men, like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Saint Francis of Assisi, who lived lives of poverty, simplicity and humility.
Countless individuals continue to be inspired by and drawn to the Christian example of Francis, Teresa, and so many others whose own lives incarnate Christ-like charity and sacrifice. Is it any surprise that their appeal is grandly universal, deeply personal, and profoundly transformative?
What’s in a name? Actually everything! In the coming weeks, months and years, I have little doubt that our knowledge about, respect for, and love of Pope Francis will grow exponentially. Why? Because from all the early indicators, Pope Francis, by the witness of his own life, will be challenging all of us to fulfill the call to the new evangelization, that is, by living up to the one name that we all share in common: Christian!
Monsignor Andrew Dubois
Moderator of the Curia