The Significance of a Name, New Bedford Standard Times, March 14, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 14, 2013

Names are a big deal in Biblical history.

God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, to herald that he would be the father of many nations. Jacob’s name was altered to Israel, to indicate that he would be the progenitor of the twelve tribes with whom the Lord would contend as he had wrestled with Jacob. Jesus replaced Simon’s name with Peter, to signify that he would be the rock on whom he would build his Church.

It’s likewise highly significant that when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, having accepted his election to the papacy, was asked by what name he wanted to be called, he chose Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is the one figure about whom Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers, all agree deserves to be canonized.

This choice of name indicates so much about the man who was elected to be the 266th pope and what his papal priorities will be.

First, St. Francis was one of the great reformers in Church history. When he was praying in the dilapidated Church of St. Damian, Jesus from the Crucifix spoke to him, saying, “Francis, rebuild my Church which you can see if falling into ruins. At first, he interpreted this at face value and sought to rebuild that tiny Church building. God, however, had a much larger renovation project in mind: the Church as a whole, which is built not of marble, wood, bricks and class, but men, women, boys and girls, living stones, as St. Peter calls them in his first letter, built into a holy edifice on the cornerstone who is Christ.

One of Pope Francis’ greatest mandates is to rebuild the Church today, which in many ways is in disrepair, beginning with the Roman Curia. The Cardinals elected him because he has a strong reputation for reforming the Jesuits in Argentina and revitalizing the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, confident he will do the same for the Church universal.

Second, St. Francis was a radical disciple of Jesus, doing things most in his day thought crazy, like taking literally Jesus’ words to trust in divine Providence rather than in material possessions. He did this to the point of “marrying” Lady Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, seeing in these evangelical counsels not a path to renunciation but a means of lyrical love.

Cardinal Bergoglio has distinguished himself as such a radical disciple. Edifyingly poor and simple, he abandoned his palatial episcopal residence to live in a small apartment caring for an ill retired bishop, cooking for the two of them, sleeping in unheated rooms even in winter, forsaking a chauffeur and even a car of own in order to take public transportation to work. He emphasized that if he was going to be living among the poor and seeking to serve them, he needed to be truly poor in spirit, as Jesus calls his disciples in the beatitudes.

Third, St. Francis was a lover of outcasts, caring for and even kissing lepers, and sacrificing himself to beg for their needs. The new Pope Francis shares a similar love, going to wash and kiss the feet of AIDS patients, regularly making visits to the slums of Buenos Aires, and persuading all those who wanted to accompany him to Rome in 2001 when he was made a Cardinal to stay home and give the money they would have spent on the trip to the poor.

Finally, il poverello instructed his Franciscan Friars to preach always but only use words when necessary recognizing that actions of love, peace, and joy speak far louder than sermons. Cardinal Bergoglio is a man who acts by those principles in his preaching about the importance of prayer, love for God and the truth he reveals, and sacrificial love for others.

Back in 1209, Pope Innocent III had a dream in which he saw St. Francis literally holding up the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral. Now that crucial weight-bearing column is dressed in white.

And it’s no dream.