It’s “striking that the new pope has chosen the name Francis,” said Jonathan Seitz, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “This is a little like old-style Kremlinology, but these choices are made with the purpose of sending a message.”
While St. Francis is known to his followers for embracing poverty and simplicity, the friar “sought a reformation and a rebuilding of the church, seeking to act in the world rather than withdraw from it. The implication to me from the choice of a new name, and the name chosen, is that a change is in store,” Seitz said.
Both the last two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict, had set as a key aim of their papacy the rejuvenation of their flock, especially in Europe, where many have left the church, many because of the sexual abuse scandals.
They also worried about the defection of souls to lively evangelical churches, especially in Latin America, which accounts for 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Although both Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier could have inspired the new pope in selecting his name for posterity, it was more likely the Italian friar who was the main inspiration, said Monsignor Raymond J. Kupke, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
“He was a man of great simplicity, down to earth, a man of the people,” Kupke said. “Also Francis of Assisi spearheaded a great evangelization movement of the 13th century. He embraced a new way of being religious in the world.”
Choosing a name no other pope has picked also might say something of the courage the Argentine pope might bring to his mission.
“It takes a certain kind of chutzpah (to pick) a brand-new name, not honoring someone in the past,” Kupke said. “It means you are looking in a whole new different direction.”
Choosing the name of one of Italy’s patron saints also ties the new pope to Italy, the homeland of all popes of the last few centuries until 1978.