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New pope's choice of 'Francis' has deep meaning for Catholic Church

Although Pope Francis is a Jesuit, he chose his papal name not in honor of St. Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Society of Jesus, but rather in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. It's a significant choice.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a member of the 115-member conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th pope, told NBC News that the new pope explained his choice of name at the gathering Wednesday.

Vatican watchers said the election of Bergoglio was already a powerful signal of a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to traditional Catholic theology. And in choosing to highlight Francis of Assisi, Bergoglio was explicitly honoring "a saint that transcends the Catholic Church and is loved by all people, a saint who reached out for simplicity, ... poverty and care for the poor," the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a spokesman for the Vatican, said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC).

Francis (who was born in 1181 or 1182 and died in 1226) founded the Franciscan Order in his hometown, Assisi, in what is now the Italian region of Umbria.

Although he was never even ordained as a priest, Francis is considered one of the church's holiest figures and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, only two years after his death, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which reflects the Vatican's official view of history. 

Among other things, he's credited by the church with creating the first Nativity scene to celebrate Christmas in 1223.

Francis wasn't always so saintly. Born to wealth, he lived a playboy life that included blowing off his studies, according to a biography penned by Thomas of Celano, a friar who was a contemporary of Francis' and one of his first followers.

But in 1205 — as he was on his way to fight one of Assisi's many battles with its rival city of Perugia — Francis had what Thomas and other biographers describe as a vision in which he was told to return home. He did, taking up a life of prayer and solitude. On a subsequent pilgrimage to Rome, he reportedly gave all his money to the city's poor having exchanged his clothes with those of a beggar.

Shortly thereafter, Francis had another vision as he was praying in a rundown chapel in Assisi, in which Jesus commanded him, "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."

Taking the command literally, according to Thomas' and other histories, Francis sold his home and his possessions to raise the money to rebuild the city's chapels. He became a street preacher, and by 1209, he and about 11 followers were making the rounds of Umbria's towns as itinerant preachers when Francis traveled to Rome to seek Pope Innocent III's blessing to establish a religious order. Final approval came the following year.

(The official history and admiring biographies of the time tell an entertaining tale of red tape and bureaucratic delays that kept Francis hanging around outside the Vatican for several days trying to get inside to see the pope.)

The order grew rapidly, and within a few years it had expanded into two others: one for women, today known as the Poor Clares, and another for pious laymen and women who choose to live a worldly life.

Followers were drawn by Francis' absolute devotion to living his life in close imitation of Jesus'. The burgeoning order celebrated poverty, so much so that in his "Testament," written shortly before he died, Francis said absolute poverty was his order's defining rule.

In a famous dictum history attributes to him, Francis argued: "You cannot starve a fasting man, you cannot steal from someone who has no money, you cannot ruin someone who hates prestige."

It is that philosophy that Pope Francis adheres to, even though he is not himself a member of the order, said Rosica, the Vatican spokesman.

"Cardinal Bergoglio has spent his life opening his arms to the poor, the destitute," he told the CBC. "Argentina is a beautiful country, but there are great pockets of poverty and injustice, and he was right there in the middle of all of this."

Church scholars predicted that the new pope would bring a sharp focus on ministering to the poor in the manner of St. Francis.

"He has a reputation for simplicity and for being utterly concerned about the poor," the Rev. John Padberg, director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources at Saint Louis University, told NBC station KSDK of St. Louis. "In all of the upheavals in Argentina in previous years, no matter what had happened, that was one of his main concerns."

Juan Martinez, an associate professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said that while Pope Francis might be considered theologically conservative, he'll be "conservative with a human face."

"The reality of living amongst the poor and those who suffered in the majority world gives him a very different perspective from the previous pope," Martinez told NBC 4 of Los Angeles. "It is an experience that is more common among the majority of Catholics."

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