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A letter to The Guardian last week pointed out that another pope had ‘ducked’ the now 422-year-old challenge of becoming Sixtus VI.

The new pope, Francis I, has perhaps met a greater challenge; he is the first pontiff in a thousand years to take a name that has not been borne by one—or in John Paul I’s case, two—of his predecessors.  We have to go back to the tenth century to find the last pope to do this, the obscure Lando (913-14) of whom the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia says ‘Nothing more is known of him except that he was a worthy man’.

In marked contrast to Lando and Sixtus, the new pontiff’s regnal name commemorates one of the most familiar and best loved of all Catholic saints, Francis of Assisi.  Francis is one of very few saints whose story is widely known among non-Catholics. Unlike many saints’ lives, the tale of the aristocratic young man who preached to the birds, loved animals, and inspired others to take a radical vow of poverty resonates in an age that values inclusivity but still experiences marked disparities in wealth.  Taking his name immediately suggests a break with the past, particularly in terms of Vatican and curial tradition.

Benedict XVI took his regnal name in honour of the patron saint of Europe. The mission lands of his ‘New Evangelisation’ were the heartlands of Catholic Europe.  The name Francis would also seem to symbolize the new pontificate. This should be, Pope Francis I tells us, ‘a Church for the poor’ and there can be few more effective ways of conveying this ambition than by jettisoning traditional papal names in favour of Francis.

Unlike some other monastic orders, Jesuits do not change their names when they take their vows.  Up to this point, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ecclesiastical career has been conducted under his baptismal name.   He had worked as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998, and immediately after his election, he asked the assembled crowd in St Peter’s Square ‘to bless me as your bishop’.  The pope’s first title is ‘bishop of Rome’ and it must be convenient that the female St Frances is patron saint of the city. Her feast day is celebrated enthusiastically by the city’s taxi drivers, as it has been since she was declared patron saint of motorists in 1925.

Francis I is, though, committed to looking outside Rome and increasing the reach and presence of the Church, ‘to search for new ways to evangelise, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth’.[1] When he was made a cardinal in 2001, he chose a Jesuit saint, Robert Bellarmine (1521-97; canonized 1925), as his patron and, in the task of global evangelisation, the Society of Jesus provides many role models.

Ignatius Loyola (c.1491-1556, canonized 1622) and Francis Xavier (1506-52, canonized 1622) both led heroic lives, the first originally as a soldier.  Their stories promoted the virtues of discipline and courage as well as intellectual and moral fervour. Xavier died in Asia as a missionary; other Jesuits remained in Europe developing an intellectually rigorous and spiritually zealous approach to religion that would transform modern Catholicism.  They were, above all, saints of the will.

The Society of Jesus developed the idea of ‘inner detachment’, a monastic rule of life that allowed members to live within the world while maintaining a spiritual and psychological withdrawal from it.  Jesuit saints such as Bellarmine, Loyola, and Francis Xavier provide resolutely masculine role models; their rule was not fitting for women and the Society is unique among the major monastic orders in not having a female branch.  The Jesuit patrons, with their qualities of spiritual fortitude and intellectual application, emphasise rationality, intellect and the strength of the will, all of which were gendered male.  One of Bellarmine’s protégés, St Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-91; canonised 1726), who is now patron saint of Catholic youth, famously said: ‘I am a piece of twisted iron: I entered religion to get twisted straight.’  The models of Jesuit spirituality are different from those offered by the Franciscan tradition. But their stories may prove very useful to a church embarking, yet again, on an evangelising mission in a secular world.

You can find other History Matters posts on papal history (including Mary’s review of the legacy of Benedict XVI) here.

Mary Vincent is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield. You can read more of her work on these saints in ‘Gender and Morals in Spanish Catholic Youth Culture’, Gender and History, 13.2 (2001), pp. 273-97 [log-in needed]; and ‘The Martyrs and the Saints: Masculinity and the Construction of the Francoist Crusade’, History Workshop Journal 47 (1999) pp. 68-98 [log-in needed].


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