Pope Francis and His Patron Saint

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the piazza outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 4. The pontiff was making his first pilgrimage as pope to the birthplace of his papal namesake. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Oct. 4, 2013

In Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” For Pope Francis, his name tells us much about the heart of this man and his papacy.

In a special audience on March 16 with 5,000 journalists from around the world, who had covered his election to the papacy three days earlier, Pope Francis revealed why he had chosen that name and become the first pope in the Church’s more than 2,000 year history to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi.  After the cardinals in conclave had elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the new pope, he said that Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes told him, “Don’t forget the poor.”  Taking his friend’s advice to heart, the new pontiff chose to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi.  That saint, he told the journalists, is “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”

In the spirit of his patron saint, Pope Francis has lived a life of humility and simplicity since his first moments as pope, and has shown personal concern for the poor and those in need, including prisoners and people with disabilities.

When I returned home after the conclave, a journalist asked me about the new pope’s name, and I said he chose the name Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi because he wanted to be reminded of the challenge of the Gospel to care for the poor. With the choice of his name, I think Pope Francis is saying to us that we have to accept the Gospel and its challenges and as disciples of Jesus who walk with him in our daily lives, we have to live the Gospel even when it is difficult.

Saint Francis took the demands of the Gospel very seriously and tried with all his heart to live them.  The great saint was not a soft person.  After his conversion, Saint Francis lived a life of prayer, poverty and service, inspired by the desire to live and love as Jesus did, and that work of faith continues in the ministries of Franciscan priests, sisters and brothers in our own Archdiocese of Washington and around the world today.

In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith),Pope Francis notes that Saint Francis of Assisi and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta were “mediators of light” to the suffering, bringing them the love and hope of the risen Christ.  Just as Saint Francis reached out in love to the leper, we can do the same with the poor in our world, work that is carried out in Christ’s name in our community every day by our own Catholic Charities, our parishes, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and numerous other Catholic social service ministries.

Fittingly today, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis made his first personal pilgrimage to Assisi, walking and praying in the footsteps of his patron saint.

Like Pope Francis, we too can walk in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi as disciples of Jesus who seek to bring his love and hope to others, particularly the poor and neglected in our world.