Francis… what’s in a name?

Francis… what’s in a name?
Pope in Ireland
Colm Fitzpatrick explores why the Pope chose the name ‘Francis’


Nowadays, the names that we are given or ascribe usually have no abiding meaning or significance, but merely act as markers for identifying one another. However, in the Jewish tradition, names carried spiritual significance – they held a certain symbolic meaning and it was this meaning that was a key component of parents’ decision to choose them. Moses, for example, may mean ‘drew out’, while Joseph means ‘he will add’.

Names, then, symbolically pointed beyond a person, to something more meaningful and profound. This ancient practice was also carried into the Christian tradition, leading laypeople and religious alike to pick names of significance. So, when our current Pope chose the name Francis, he did so, not because it sounded good, but because attached to it was a history of meaning which he wanted to convey in the world today.

The story of choosing the name Francis dates back to 2013, when the now-Pope said that “as things got dangerous” in the conclave voting, he was sitting next to his “great friend”, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes who “comforted” him. When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio went over the 77 votes needed to become Pope, he said, Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, kissed me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor’”.


After this encounter, Bergoglio told thousands of journalists that he took to heart the words of his friend and chose to be called after St Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation”, the same created world “with which we don’t have such a good relationship”. He added “How I would like a Church that is poor and that is for the poor.”

Pope Francis also said some had suggested jokingly that he, a Jesuit, should have taken the name Clement XV “to get even with Clement XIV, who suppressed the Society of Jesus” in the 1700s. Others were uncertain if his name referred to St Francis Xavier or St Francis de Sales, but the Pontiff confirmed that the 12th-Century ecological saint was the primary influence for him choosing the name.

Born in 1181, St Francis was a Catholic friar, deacon and preacher. Notably, he was the founder of the Franciscan Orders, which continues to play an important influence in communities throughout the world. Today, he is usually praised for his theology on the environment, affirming that all of creation is good, and that humans are called to be stewards of the Earth.

One convivial story that highlights the nature of the saint recalls that while Francis was travelling with some friends, they happened upon a place where the trees were filled with birds.

Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds then surrounded him, captivated by the power of his voice, and not one flew away.

Although Pope Francis hasn’t performed any miracles of such grandiose stature, it’s clear that he hasn’t shied away from the saint’s environmental passions. His 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be To You) pays homage to the religious song ‘Canticle of the Sun’ composed by the saint, which praises God and gives thanks for all creation.

Living up to the theme of poverty, the Pontiff has repeatedly spoken about how we should all “become a bit poorer” and has carried this message across the globe. In 2016, in St Peter’s Square, he said the poor are at the centre of the Gospel and that Jesus privileges those “who are furthest away, the suffering, the sick, those discarded by society”.

Although this is the first time any Pope has chosen the title Francis, given the praiseworthy work our Pontiff has done in his name, the saint and his message will be undoubtedly remembered long into the future.