A Pope's Name Tells His Spiritual Story And Vision

10:21 AM, Mar 13, 2013   |    comments
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Any day now a new pope will introduce himself to the world and the name he picks for himself will be the first indication of his values and his vision for the papacy.

In 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose to be known as Pope Benedict XVI. The name harkened to St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. It also paid homage to Pope Benedict XV. The new pope said at his first audience that the World War I-era pope stood for "reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples."

The name not only reflected his German heritage but also foreshadowed what became one of his highest-priority efforts: He wanted to revive the flagging faith and practice in Europe and that prompted the campaign he called the New Evangelization.

So what might a new pope call himself?

Church historian Matthew Bunson suggests that if Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, is chosen, the Capuchin monk may break new pope-name ground by calling himself Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan religious order.

He might even call himself Pope Francis I. Pope John Paul I was the most recent pontiff to create a new name rather than honor a past pope. And, unusually, John Paul I added "the first" to his name from the get-go, so O'Malley might follow suit.

If the new pope is Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, and, before that of Venice, he may pick Leo XIV. The lion is a symbol of Venice and also honors Pope Leo XIII, who was lionized for his teachings on Catholic social justice.

It has been six centuries since Marcellus II used his own birth name, but if Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana were chosen, he likely would not do so. St. Peter is traditionally considered the first and longest living of all popes.

Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, told Religion News Service that the pope name can send a theological and a political message and honor someone of spiritual significance to him.


Michele Dillon, a Catholic scholar at the University of New Hampshire, speculated that Benedict XVII is out: It would be too confusing with Benedict XVI living in a monastery the out the back window in the Vatican gardens.

Religion News Service lists the most popular and most unique papal names.

The 10 most popular:

  1. John (23)
  2. Benedict (16)
  3. Gregory (16)
  4. Clement (14)
  5. Leo (13)
  6. Innocent (13)
  7. Pius (12)
  8. Stephen (9, although some debate 10)
  9. Boniface (9)
  10. Alexander and Urban (tied at 8 each)
The 10 most unique:
  1. Telesphorus (c. 125-136 A.D.)
  2. Eleutherius (c. 174-189 A.D.)
  3. Zephyrinus (198-217 A.D.)
  4. Eutychian (275-283 A.D.)
  5. Miltiades (311-314 A.D.)
  6. Hormisdas (514-523 A.D.)
  7. Zosimus (417-418 A.D.)
  8. Symmachus (498-514 A.D.)
  9. Simplicius (468-483 A.D.)
  10. Vigilius (537-555 A.D.)

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