By Msgr. Michael Olson
Special to The Texas Catholic
Qui sibi nomen imposuit Fransiscum. Who has chosen to call himself, Francis.
These words announced from the Balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica by Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran made known the first decision of the new Holy Father, Pope Francis. Previously, Pope Francis was called Jorge Bergoglio. Why did he change his name?
The first pope, St. Peter, was called Simon, but, as we read in Matthew’s Gospel, upon his profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, received the new name “Peter” from Jesus himself to indicate the ministry that he would fulfill in the mission of Christ’s Church. During the early centuries of the church, the popes continued to use their baptismal names after their elections. The custom of choosing a new name earnestly began in AD 533 with the election of Mercurius. He had been named after the pagan god Mercury, and decided it inappropriate for a pope to be named after a pagan divinity so he chose instead to be called Pope John II.
The names chosen by popes have been inspired on immediate or distant predecessors, mentors, political similarities, identification with a saint, or even after family members—as was the case in 1958 with Blessed John XXIII. He explained the choice of his regal name as having several points of significance: “I choose John … a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica [St. John Lateran]. Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have [been Pope], and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.”
In 1963, Cardinal Montini was elected to succeed Pope John XXIII. He chose the name “Paul VI” because of his desire to imitate the Apostle Paul in bringing the Gospel in a renewed manner to the world. Pope Paul VI re-convened the Second Vatican Council and became the first pope up to that point in recent history to travel extensively outside of Italy.
In 1978 Cardinal Albino Luciani became the first pope to take a double name. He took the name John Paul I to honor his two immediate predecessors, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. After John Paul I’s sudden death 34 days after his election, Cardinal Wojtyła was elected and, wishing to continue his predecessor’s work, became the second pope to take a double name as John Paul II.
At this writing, while the Holy Father has not formally articulated his reasons for the choice of his name, the name itself carries its own significance.
The name Francis—never before chosen as a papal moniker—recalls Francis of Assisi and the culture of his Italian ancestry as well as the country he was born and lived in, Argentina. It also recalls the great Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier who carried the Gospel to Asia and beyond.
The fact that Pope Francis has chosen a name that has not been used before may signal that he hopes to lead the church into a new chapter, or at least embrace a renewed tone. In a notable gesture, Pope Francis asked the multitudes assembled in St. Peter’s Square to bless him.
According to Catholic tradition, Francis of Assisi had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ at the Church of San Damiano, in which Christ told him to rebuild his church that had fallen into ruin.
In light of the scandals and abuse of power that have hurt the church in recent years the name may carry a special message of hope in the Gospel.
Msgr. Michael Olson, a priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth, is the rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas.