What's in the Name Francis?

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If your knowledge of St. Francis of Assisi is limited to garden statuary, you probably think the name chosen by the new pope is no more than friendly. But religious historians take the name "Francis" as something pretty radical. Imagine a U.S. President a few centuries hence deciding for some reason to take on the name of Ron Paul or Ralph Nader.

Francis of Assisi might have been that level of odd for his era.

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina broke deeply with tradition this week with his choice of papal name. The last pope to pick a name that had never been used by another pope was Lando, exactly 1,100 years ago. (John Paul I cobbled his name from two well-worn papal choices. John had been picked 23 times, Paul six.)

And then to choose "Francis?" Initially there was some speculation about which Francis he's honoring. The pope is a Jesuit and one of the founders of his order was St. Francis Xavier, famed as an incredible evangelist. I won't be shocked if eventually the Vatican issues a statement with a nod to that saint, as well. But for the moment, the official line is that the papal choice is homage to the Assisi Francis.

The first biography of Francis was written not long after his death, by a man who knew him. (You can find a translation here.) Over the centuries, legends have accreted that make it hard to discern the nature of the real man.

Recent biographers have tried to strip away the legend and get back to the historically accurate Francis. I'm not going to even try to negotiate those rocks. After all, the resonances people have with "Pope Francis" have more to do with the popular image of the saint than any historical text.

As the Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" put it in a far different context: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." And what we think we know makes it clear that Francis was, well, unusual.

Start with his utter renunciation of worldly goods. The son of a well-off cloth merchant, probably born in 1182, young Francis seems to have grown up with material advantages. Even that first biography, though, tells the tale of his radical rejection of wealth and family. He sells some of his dad's cloth and gives the money to a run-down church. Eventually, Francis returns the money to his father, along with all of the clothing he's wearing.

"Moreover he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders."

There's the preach-to-the-animals thing, why we have the garden statues and thre annual blessing of the animals in his name. One of the legends has Francis mediating a dispute between a village and a wolf, getting the wolf to agree not to attack the town if the residents fed him.

His most famous bit of writing is credited as one of the first poems written in Italian. Known as the Canticle of the Creatures, it's a prayer of thanks to God. Thanks for what? Brothers Sun, Wind, Air and Fire and Sisters Moon, Water, Earth and Bodily Death.

Here's a legend recounted on Catholic.org: "When someone told him of a priest living openly with a woman and asked him if that meant the Mass was polluted, Francis went to the priest, knelt before him, and kissed his hands -- because those hands had held God."

The order he founded started with a no-money rule. Eventually, his followers decided that was too harsh. At about which point, he stepped out of leadership. Many of the stories I've read indicate he was never particularly happy being in charge of an organization.

He was harder on himself than he was on his followers. One story says that after he had an evil thought about a man, he asked the fellow to stomp on his mouth and neck. Three times.

His last years were spent in physical misery. The stories say he was marked with Stigmata -- the wounds of Christ. He was blind. And he died at 45.

Never a priest, he quickly became a saint. Memorialized in tales and art, he's revered for piety, humility, love of all creatures as fellow siblings of God, unusual attention to the needs of the poor, and obedience to the Gospel. The orders he founded survive -- the Franciscan friars for men, the Poor Clares for women.

He remains among the most dramatic figures in Christian history.

So what of this did Cardinal Bergoglio think about when he decided on "Francis?" Might he pledge the Vatican's worldly wealth (See: the movie Shoes of the Fisherman) to finance alternative energy sources? Might he take an unprecedented turn to aid the world's poor? Might he write immortal poetry?

For those who know something of the name, the new Pope Francis has at least set a high bar for expectations.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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