Francis I is already a pope of several firsts. He is the first pope to be born in Latin America, a region that counts more than 400 million Catholics and is destined to play a progressively larger role in the church as Catholic demographics shift south from Europe and North America. He is the first pope who belongs to the Jesuits, the pioneering religious order that has left its mark on all facets of Catholic life, from education to science and the arts. And, perhaps most obviously, he is the first pope to take the name Francis.

By choosing a name that honors both his Jesuit roots as well as the founder of an order often thought to be the enemy of his own, Francis I may be gesturing to a desire on his part to move past the enmity and infighting in the Vatican.

- Patrick Hornbeck

Though Vatican Radio announced that the new pope chose his name in homage to Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, a missionary to Asia, and now a patron saint of missionaries, it is hard to imagine that in selecting his name, Francis I was not also thinking about another, at least equally influential Francis.

In the early thirteenth century, a wealthy young man known to history as Francis of Assisi put aside his worldly goods and chose to follow Jesus in a life of poverty. The religious order that he founded, the Franciscans, has long been associated with the reform of the church. According to legend, at the beginning of his ministry Francis experienced a vision in which Christ told him, “Go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” 

Early Franciscans lived in extreme poverty, especially in comparison to the members of more sumptuous medieval religious orders. Many distinguished themselves as scholars, administrators, mystics. Several centuries later, it was a Franciscan, Pope Clement XIV, who ordered the suppression of the Society of Jesus—the same order that has now produced the first Francis to sit on the papal throne.

With all this as background, what significance can we find in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s papal name?

First, he has signaled that he intends to be a true pontifex, a word that we usually translate as “pontiff” but that in Latin literally means “bridge-builder”. By choosing a name that honors both his Jesuit roots as well as the founder of an order often thought to be the enemy of his own, Francis I may be gesturing to a desire on his part to move past the enmity and infighting in the Vatican and the church at large that recently have been so often in the news.

Second, at a time when many Roman Catholics, especially in the developed world, are questioning the relevance of the church’s pomp and circumstance to their own lives, Pope Francis’s first actions hint at a pontificate that will seek to emulate the spiritual simplicity of Francis of Assisi. 

Eschewing the tradition of his recent predecessors, the new pope chose not to wear the elaborate papal mozzetta, or short velvet cape, when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Instead, Francis I presented himself to the world in a simple white cassock, a sartorial choice that will no doubt have left some traditionalists aghast. Then he asked the people of Rome to bless him with their prayers before he delivered his first official blessing. In doing so, he echoed the motto that then-Cardinal Bergoglio took as archbishop of Buenos Aires—“lowly, and yet chosen.” His record there points to a style of ministry that contrast sharply with the elitist, clericalist mindset that many Catholics say is driving them away from the church and from their practice of the faith.

There is one final detail that should not escape our attention. Leaks from the last conclave, in 2005, have revealed that Cardinal Bergoglio was the runner-up to Joseph Ratzinger, who recently made history by becoming the first pope in modern history to resign. That a new group of cardinals would turn back to Bergoglio this time around suggests, as one commentator has already put it, that Francis I has a “mandate” to enact what many Catholics see as necessary reforms in the church’s administration.

Will Pope Francis I be able to repair the house that is the Roman Catholic Church? Only time will tell. But it’s a safe bet that this night will not have seen the only firsts of his pontificate.

First, he has signaled that he intends to be a true pontifex, a word that we usually translate as “pontiff” but that in Latin literally means “bridge-builder”. By choosing a name that honors both his Jesuit roots as well as the founder of an order often thought to be the enemy of his own, Francis I may be gesturing to a desire on his part to move past the enmity and infighting in the Vatican and the church at large that recently have been so often in the news.

Second, at a time when many Roman Catholics, especially in the developed world, are questioning the relevance of the church’s pomp and circumstance to their own lives and struggles, Pope Francis’s first actions hint at a pontificate that will seek to emulate the spiritual and material simplicity of Francis of Assisi. 

Eschewing the tradition of his recent predecessors, the new pope chose not to wear the elaborate papal mozzetta, or short velvet cape, when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Instead, Francis I presented himself to the world in a simple white cassock, a sartorial choice that will no doubt have left some traditionalists aghast. 

At the same time, the motto that then-Cardinal Bergoglio took as archbishop of Buenos Aires—“lowly, and yet chosen”—seems to hint at a vision and style of ministry that contrast sharply with the elitist, clericalist mindset that many Catholics say is driving them away from the church and from their practice of the faith.

There is one final detail that should not escape our attention. Leaks from the last conclave, in 2005, have revealed that Cardinal Bergoglio was the runner-up to Joseph Ratzinger, who recently made history by becoming the first pope in modern history to resign. That a largely new group of cardinals would turn back to Bergoglio this time around suggests, as one commentator has already put it, that Francis I has a “mandate” to enact what many Catholics see as necessary reforms in the upper reaches of the church’s administration.

Will Pope Francis I be able to repair the house that is the Roman Catholic Church? Only time will tell, but it’s a safe bet that this night will not have seen the only firsts of his pontificate.

Patrick Hornbeck is assistant professor and associate chair of the department of theology at Fordham University.

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