The Holy Father adopted the image to signify his membership in the Society of Jesus, which he entered in 1958.
Since the day Saint Ignatius of Loyola adopted by the monogram and sunburst as his personal seal in 1541, it has been used as the seal of the Order which he founded, commonly known as the Jesuits, together with the cross above and the three nails below the monogram.
Though it may not be obvious at first, the monogram IHS is an abbreviation of the name Jesus in Greek - IHSOUS - and its use can be found as early as the 8th century as demonstrated by its use on certain gold coins. Over the last thirteen hundred years, it has been used to ornament any number of Christians projects, including churches, vestments, and graves. It is even found on the cross that stands over the grave of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton in my hometown, whose cause for beatification and canonization is underway:
Though commonly misread as a dollar sign, here the I, H, and S are superimposed over each other, without the sunburst.
Today the monogram is largely associated with the Society of Jesus, but the monogram largely owes its widespread use to the sons of Saint Francis of Assisi. It was Saint Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444), a member of the Order of Friars Minor, who popularized the use of the monogram and fostered devotion to the holy name of Jesus.
The image of the monogram and sunburst can be found in many Franciscan churches and sanctuaries, including the one at Mount La Verna, from which I returned just a few days ago. There, in the Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels, are two beautiful pieces of ceramic art - known collectively as della Robbia after the family who produced them - depicting both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. At the base of each is this monogram, shown in this detail at the right.
As he traveled throughout Italy preaching for up to three hours at a time to crowds of up to 30,000 people about the holy name, Saint Bernardine would frequently display a placard on which he had painted the monogram and sunburst, saying as he did so, "So this name must be proclaimed that it may shine out and never be suppressed" (Sermo 49).
Known as the Apostle of Italy, Saint Bernardine sought to inspire love of the holy name of Jesus in the hearts of his listeners and to quell strife and discord by displaying the name of Jesus, urging those who looked upon it to place themselves under its banner rather than the banners of their warring factions. In these efforts he met with great success and we would do well to call upon his intercession in our own day, which is so often marked with discord and factions, as well, both within and outside the Church. How good it would be if we would choose to united ourselves together under the banner of the holy name of Jesus!
Today is also a fitting day for us to pause and prayerfully consider our use of the name of Jesus. When it is spoken on our lips, is "the shining splendor" and "the brilliance and sweet savor of that name," to again quote Saint Bernardine, revealed in our words?
Saint Berardine declared that the name of Jesus "must not be preached by someone with sullied mind or unclean lips." How clean are our lips and how pure are our minds when we speak the name of Jesus?
Together, let us seek to deepen our reverence and love of the holy name of Jesus by making use of a prayer used by Saint Bernardine:
Jesus, Name full of glory, grace, love and strength! You are the refuge of those who repent, our banner of warfare in this life, the medicine of souls, the comfort of those who morn, the delight of those who believe, the light of those who preach the true faith, the wages of those who toil, the healing of the sick. To You our devotion aspires; by You our prayers are received; we delight in contemplating You. O Name of Jesus, You are the glory of all the saints for eternity. Amen.