What’s in a papal name? Plenty

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The two big questions asked at the conclusion of every modern conclave are these:

“Do you accept?” and “By what name shall you be called?”

The custom of a new pope choosing a new name began in 533 with Mercurius, who took the name John II.

It proved to be popular. More popes (and some antipopes) have chosen the name John than any other name, for a total of 21. The rest, in descending order, are: Gregory, 16; Benedict, 15; Clement, 14; Innocent, 13; Leo, 13; and Pius, 12.

Pope John II was the first, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that every pope changed his name upon election.

“There’s no strict policy which dictates it, but usually it indicates either a personal affection for a certain saint or, more often, it indicates a signal of the priorities of that papacy,” said Jamie Blosser, associate professor in the theology department of Benedictine College in Atchison.

A pope will often signal his frame of mind, his outlook, his view of himself and the church with his name. So, names are a big deal. On his first general audience on April 27, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI explained why he chose his name.

“Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the church through the turbulent times of war,” said the pope. “In his footsteps, I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.”

“Additionally,” he continued, “I recall Saint Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe. I ask him to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life: May Christ always take first place in our thoughts and actions.”

St. Benedict and the religious order he founded were major factors in the re-Christianization of Europe following the conquest of the Western Roman Empire by Germanic barbarian tribes, said Blosser.

“I think we can read more into that latter suggestion, because Cardinal Jo- seph Ratzinger always worked hard to bring Europe back to its Christian roots and fight the tide of secularism,” said Blosser. “He saw the new need today for a new re-Christianization of Europe, the new evangelization.”

Pope John Paul I was the first pope to choose a double name, and explained that he took it to honor both of his immediate predecessors, John XXIII, who had named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal.

“Pope John Paul I’s choice was to honor them together by his name,” he continued. “Something similar was behind Pope John Paul II’s choice.”

Popes generally name themselves after a previously successful pope. But you can’t bet on it.

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli — who later surprised the world when he called the Second Vatican Council — first surprised it when he chose the name John, since the name had been avoided since the Antipope John XXIII during the Western Schism 500 years before. Cardinal Roncalli even had to clarify what number John he would be; by choosing John XXIII he was confirming the anti- pope status of the earlier John.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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