Pope shares friar’s vision

LORETTO – A statue of St. Francis University’s namesake stands, a bird on his shoulder and a pensive look on his face, under a framed photograph of now-retired Pope Benedict XVI as administrators await a picture of his replacement.

The new pope – the first ever to share a name with the 12th-century saint and the Loretto college that honors him – has lent a proud association to the school, where students and administrators now can boast of their connection to the “Vicar of Christ,” head of the Roman Catholic Church.

“It’s a big deal – especially since he’s the first Pope Francis ever,” freshman Sarah Polito said excitedly Friday in the campus’s Immaculate Conception Chapel.

When the time came Wednesday for Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to select the name he will use as pontiff, he chose to identify with Francis of Assisi, the Italian friar famed for his willful poverty and love of animals.

Statues and images of the saint dot the Loretto campus; robed, with birds flocking around him, he’s instantly recognizable from countless stone garden statues and church images around the world.

Yet, despite Francis’ fame, he’s historically been skipped over for papal names in favor of the Johns, Pauls and Piuses of recent history.

“Most people ask, ‘Why is that? Why didn’t another pope choose Francis as a name?'” Father Gabriel Zeis, president of St. Francis University, said Friday under a statue in the saint’s likeness. “There’s a good answer: Francis is a nickname.”

Born as John in Assisi, a central Italian mountain town, the future saint took the name Francesco – associated with France – on the insistence of his Francophile father.

“Most popes don’t want to be called a nickname, you see,” Zeis said.

The new pope’s precedent-setting name calls to mind St. Francis’ love for the poor, who he joined after leaving a comfortable upbringing for a live of religious devotion, Zeis said.

As a Jesuit, Bergoglio’s papal moniker also has ties to another famous Francis: St. Francis Xavier, founder of the Society of Jesus, who was himself named for Francis of Assisi.

“It’s a double-whammy name,” Zeis said. “There’s a great connection in the pope’s mind, I imagine.”

Notified of the cardinals’ vote through a computer application, Zeis said he was touched to hear the pontiff’s new name amid the Vatican ceremony on Wednesday.

“All of our students on campus know. … Everyone was already talking about it,” he said.

The selection seemed to take every Catholic by surprise, including Tom Waruszewski, a St. Vincent College accounting and finance major applying for membership in the religious order based at St. Francis.

Waruszewski, 21, of Pittsburgh said the saint’s famous poverty, reflected in the Franciscan order’s renunciation of private possessions, can be seen in the new pope’s low-key style: He uses public transportation, works in slums and has seemed to shun the gaudier papal outfits.

“I might be calling [the Loretto Franciscan brothers] soon … I can’t imagine the celebration,” Waruszewski said. “No one really expected him to choose a new name, especially the name Francis.”

Zeis said the saint’s tales of interfaith peacemaking – he reportedly met with a Muslim sultan in a bid to end the Fifth Crusade – carry particular weight in a 21st-century world rife with religious and ethnic conflicts. And his devotion to nature could serve as a symbol for modern-day environmentalism, Zeis said.

While Zeis stressed that administrators don’t want to “milk the holy father’s name,” some students and prospective brothers there seemed more than happy to celebrate it.

“I knew it was going to be a great man,” Waruszewski said. “But I never guessed he’d pick my favorite saint’s name.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.