Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's in a Name?


When the new pope took the name Francis, I thought it was an odd choice. He’s a Jesuit, so Ignatius would have made more sense. Was he taking the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi or St. Francis Xavier, or as I secretly hoped, St. Francis de Sales? As Francis de Sales is my confirmation saint, I have a particular fondness for him. He worked in Geneva following the Counter-Reformation. His writings converted thousands of Calvinists back to Catholicism. Francis Xavier was a co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He was a missionary to Asia, mostly India and Japan.

However, the Vatican confirmed that the pope’s name is in honor of Francis of Assisi. Around 1209, Francis was inspired to embrace poverty. He founded the Franciscan order, whose basic rule was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” Many stories of St. Francis of Assisi involve his love of animals and the environment. He is seen as a gentle, humble servant.

Francis was not always the poor preacher. He grew up the son of a merchant, and he had a love for colorful clothes and French culture. It is said that he once had an encounter with a leper that left him with a sense of joy. He went to the run-down church in San Damiano to pray about this. He heard Jesus speak to him, saying, “Rebuild my church.” Francis assumed this meant the actual building, so he sold all he had to buy stones and began working on the church. However, the message was really about the Church, which at the time was suffering from internal scandal and external heresies. Francis began preaching about returning to God and obeying the Church, which led to the founding of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares.

I think the name of Francis is a good decision. It reflects the command “Rebuild my Church.” The Church suffers from internal scandals and external grievous misunderstanding. I hope Pope Francis can draw people to God and the Church. And even though the name is in honor of Francis of Assisi, I hope that the new pope reflects all three of these saints: the theology and writings of St. Francis de Sales, the missionary zeal and international relations of St. Francis Xavier, and the reform and humility of St. Francis of Assisi.

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