It was particularly striking that he chose a new name. My colleagues and I were going over the list of old names, taking bets on common names like Gregory and Leo, and wondering if we’d get a symbolic or resonant name like Innocent or Clement. A few were hoping that Pope Lando II would emerge from behind the curtains. (Yes, there really was a Pope Lando.) Instead, Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope since Pope Lando himself to choose an entirely new name. A look at the list of papal names shows that most of the one-off names are quite rare: Telesphorus and Hormisdas and such. Among the few names now in common use, but which have been used by only one pope, are Mark, Peter, Zachary—and now Francis. We need refer to him as only Pope Francis for now; with no other Francis, there’s no need to call him Francis I.
Much of the attention of the press focused on the pope’s home country. He is the first non-European pope, coming from Argentina. But his parents came from Italy; his was hardly the most radical geographical/ethnic choice the cardinals could have made. (That would have been an African.) But the choice of a Latin American pope of European parentage is another bit of nice bridge-building symbolism. Pope Francis addressed the adoring crowd, which chanted “Francesco! Francesco!”, in comfortable, fluent Italian. It will be of even bigger import that he can address the Catholic Church’s most important region, the Americas, in flawless Spanish. (Although not “accentless” Spanish; nobody is accentless, and the porteño accent of Buenos Aires is very distinctive.)
It should be no surprise if the new pope is decent at languages. He is the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuits have an egghead reputation for their passion for learning. As part of their evangelising mission, they have contributed much to the learning and transmission of languages. Johnson has already reported on Alexandre de Rhodes, the Jesuit who gave Vietnamese the modified Roman alphabet used to write that language today. Jesuits were also among the first to take native American languages seriously (the better to convert the locals). And they transmitted knowledge of Japanese, Chinese and Sanskrit to Europe. Like the Mormons, the Jesuits remain keen religious language-learners today.
This, of course, represents a gradual shift from the old, Latin-only policies of the church. The world’s religions may now be usefully divided into those that expect the pious to read the sacred texts in their original languages (the Arabic of the Koran and the Hebrew of the Torah, especially); those that lean not on the scriptural language but on another liturgical language (Church Slavonic in some Orthodox Christian countries, Latin among traditional Catholics); and those who embrace any linguistic means available (most of Christianity and Buddhism, for example).
Finally, we have the second pope to Tweet. Francis will inherit his predecessor’s nine Twitter accounts, in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Latin, Polish, German and Arabic. All nine accounts had Benedict XVI‘s old tweets erased and archived elsewhere. The various @pontifex accounts lay empty (reading “Sede Vacante” on the profile page) for the past few weeks. Now, they all now have just one tweet. Perhaps tellingly, it is in Latin: HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM