Why has no pope ever taken the name Francis before? The most beloved of Christian saints, Francis of Assisi, was also one of the most radical. The 13th-century cleric’s embrace of the poor was a resounding repudiation of church decadence. Before he was named pope Wednesday, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was already known for his simplicity, attachment to the poor, and resistance to the princely trappings of his high position. And in dedicating his pontificate to St. Francis, Bergoglio signaled the kind of pope he aims to be. That, at least, was a welcome sign, for the scandals that have wracked the church in recent years reveal a crisis at its core.
St. Francis’s life speaks to a capacity within the church for reform. His demands foreshadowed the challenge that Martin Luther posed 300 years later. Church leaders could well have condemned Francis as a heretic. Instead, his impulse was enshrined in the name of the Franciscans. Known for their pious devotedness and works of mercy, they are one of the church’s two greatest religious orders.