The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 13, 2013

What's in a papal name? A statement of purpose

(Continued)

"What Benedict and Francis both communicated is that, yes, reform is needed, but it will be the kind of reform that these great saints have brought," Pecknold said. "I think he's going to be the people's pope. We often associate St. Francis with incredible love for humanity."

Simply by taking a new name — one no pope has ever used — Bergoglio might also be sending a message that change is on the way for the church. There is a strong tradition in the church of taking names of previous popes. John Paul I, in 1978, broke with tradition when he combined the names of men who preceded him as bishop of Rome. Before that, one has to go back more than a thousand years, to Pope Lando of the early 10th century, to find a pope who took an entirely new name.

"That's a novelty in an institution that often doesn't have a lot of novelty, and I think that's telling," said Jonathan Seitz, a historian of early modern religion at Drexel University.

Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1181 or 1182. He was the son of a cloth merchant and a noblewoman. As a young man he had a vision of Christ while praying in a grotto and later made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he spent time among beggars and lepers. A key moment in his religious conversion came when he was praying before a crucifix in a ramshackle chapel at San Damiano, near Assisi. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Francis heard a voice from the altar saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."

He took the command literally and repaired the chapel. Eventually he embraced a life of poverty, renouncing his worldly possessions. He soon had a small band of followers who, like Francis, had given all they owned to the poor. In 1209, with the approbation of Pope Innocent III, he founded the Friars Minor, the seed of what is now commonly called the Franciscan Order, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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