Catholic Church

Papal name Francis honours saint who brought Catholicism to Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 3:24am

In addition to being the first non-European pope for almost 13 centuries, the new pope's choice of name sets him apart - and establishes a link to the South China coast.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is Latin America's first pope, and his decision to become the first pope ever to go by the name Francis is seen as highly significant.

The chosen name draws on the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century founder of the Franciscan Order and a symbol of asceticism.

However, it may also be seen as a reference to St Francis Xavier, the Catholic missionary known as the Apostle of the East who died on Shangchuan island west of Macau in 1552 and did much to introduce Catholicism to Asia.

Francis Xavier was one of seven founders of the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, and Pope Francis is the first member of the order elected to the papacy.

In the mid-16th century, Francis Xavier spent more then a decade evangelising in Asia, starting in Goa, Portuguese India, before making his way to Malacca in modern Malaysia, the Moluccan Islands in eastern Indonesia, and Japan.

He is reported to have briefly visited Guangzhou, on his way to Japan, but his wish to preach in China was never fulfilled. He made it as far as Shangchuan, then a Portuguese possession before the establishment of Macau, in August 1552. He died of a fever in December that year, while waiting for a boat to take him to the mainland. Relics of his body are kept in the Chapel of St Francis Xavier in Coloane, Macau.

But the missionary's work was eventually to be fulfilled, as the Jesuits became established in Macau and later the mainland. His most notable successor, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who travelled through China and eventually advised the Wanli Emporer in Beijing, was born in the year Francis Xavier died.

The Jesuit mission to China is considered to have played a key role in the exchange of knowledge between Europe and the isolationist Middle Kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries.

St Francis Xavier is traditionally associated with education and has lent his name to many schools around the world, including a college in Tai Kok Tsui and a school in Tsuen Wan.

The new leader of the world's 1.2 billion catholics will be known as Francis, rather than Francis I, until such time as a future pope calls himself Francis II.

Francis is the first pope to choose an original name since John Paul I in 1978, who was the first to do so since Lando, elected in 913. John Paul also was the first pope to choose to add "the first" to his name.

Papal names down the centuries are inextricably linked to the legacies of the men who have ruled the Church. Some of the quirkier names from history have proved unpopular. Among those never used more than once are Simplicius and Hilarius.