Pope Francis speaks during a meeting with the media at the Pope VI hall, at the Vatican, Saturday, March 16, 2013. (Michael Sohn, Associated Press)

Matthew Brown

In choosing the name Francis, Vatican observers say the new pope made history and sent a message to not just Catholics but to followers of other faiths as to what kind of pontiff he will be.

Over the weekend, Pope Francis explained how and why he came to decide on the name Francis. Upon his election, a fellow cardinal hugged him, kissed him and asked him not to forget the poor.

“And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi,” who devoted his life to the poor, missionary outreach and caring for God’s creation, according to the Associated Press.

Choosing a new name is a pope’s first decision after accepting his election to head the church. And choosing to be named in honor of the venerated St. Francis of Assisi could be former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s boldest decision of his papacy, wrote John Allen for the National Catholic Reporter.

“Over the years, I’ve talked to historians of the papacy who regarded ‘Francis’ as a name no pope could, or should, ever take. It’s like ‘Jesus’ or ‘Peter,’ they argued — there’s only one, so it would be borderline sacrilegious for a pope to claim it for himself,” Allen wrote.

But in doing so, Allen says, the new pope is sending a message that the face of the church that speaks to the “humble and simple community of equals with a special love for the least of this world” will shine through the institutional church.

CNN reported how then-Pope Benedict XVI recounted how St. Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 as the son of a rich Italian cloth merchant.

Francis joined the military and was taken prisoner. He was freed after becoming ill, and when he returned to Assisi, Italy, a spiritual conversion began. He abandoned his worldly lifestyle.

In a famous episode, Christ on the Cross came to life three times in the small Church of St. Damian and told him: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins,” according to the Vatican’s website.

“At that moment St. Francis was called to repair the small Church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself,” Pope Benedict XVI said. “At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love.”

St. Francis wrote the lyrics to the well-known Christian hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

The name also has significance for Muslims, wrote Omar Sacirbey for Religion News Service. He describes an encounter during the crusades in 1219 when St. Francis crossed enemy lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the young sultan of Egypt.

While scholars are divided on St. Francis’ motives in the visit, one determined it radically changed the relationship between Christians and Muslims from one of conversion to coexistence.

“I can’t believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is,” the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis., told RNS. “The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded.”

email: mbrown@desnews.com