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Pope Francis: A Saintly Name, Hold The 'I'

After his election as pope Wednesday, Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose a name that, for many Catholics, sent an immediate signal of his goal to unite the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis. The name also prompted some confusion whether it should include "I."

At least one of those questions has now been cleared up, as a Vatican spokesman said in the hours after the new pope's first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica that the pontiff would be known as "Pope Francis." The name is also repeated in Wednesday's Vatican Bulletin.

Before that clarification came — and indeed, likely for long after its arrival — news outlets and religious websites showed their confusion over whether the new pope should be called Francis, or Francis I. Some simply chose a version and stuck with it. In a title that often includes a Roman numeral designation, the name can look bare without one. As with the choice of "Francis," there are undercurrents of meaning.

John Paul I "decided to add the 'I' himself; no other pope, it seems, has declared himself to be a 'first,' " Mark wrote Tuesday in a post about papal names. (John is by far the most popular, he says.)

The choice of "Francis" is seen as a gesture from Bergoglio, the first Jesuit to become pope, toward the Franciscans. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi has confirmed that the name refers to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, often seen as the Jesuits' traditional rivals.

A Jesuit pope who chooses the name Francis seeks to be "the people's pope, a pope who cares about the poor, who wants to have solidarity with the people of the world," Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America, tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered.

At the Whispers in the Loggia blog , Vatican expert Rocco Palmo says that Pope Francis' name reflects "his desire to be a force of unity in a polarized fold, a heart for the poor, and his intent to 'repair God's house, which has fallen into ruin' ... that is, to rebuild the church."

That final phrase is a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, who legendarily heard a voice coming from a crucifix that commanded him to rebuild the deteriorating chapel of San Damiano.

St. Francis was also known for his strict stances against greed and wealth, and in favor of inclusion — an idea symbolized by the embrace of a leper that famously led Francis to reject the privileges he had been born into as the son of a cloth merchant in Assisi.

Pecknold says that for him, the name brings up two themes: social justice and a new evangelism. And he sees Francis leading the church into regions where Catholicism is on the rise, such as Africa, Latin America and Asia.

In that light, the new pope's name also echoes St. Francis Xavier and St. Francis Borgia, Spanish Jesuits who lived in the 1500s and were instrumental in establishing Catholic missions in the Americas and Asia.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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