Editor’s note: As this story was being published, white smoke appeared from the Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling the election of a new pope. At press time he had not been identified. ― Jerry L. Van Marter
WASHINGTON ― Once the new pope is elected, he will have two big initial decisions to make: whether to accept the job, and what his new papal name will be.
Gregory? Leo? Benedict? No one knows what the next pope will pick. But choosing a new moniker is a decision that’s tied up in history, tradition and more than a little symbolic value.
In papal tradition, newly elected pontiffs choose a name to identify themselves during their reigns. The tradition has been around for centuries, even though no law or rule requires that a pope pick a new name.
Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, said that the pope’s choice of name offers an early indicator of what his papacy might be like.
“The pope’s choice will reflect his own personal spirituality, but he knows it will send a political message,” Gillis said.
Gillis said the pope’s new name could also indicate the theological direction he wants to take during his reign. Popes usually choose names to honor a predecessor or to symbolically link their reigns with that of a past pontiff.
“Whatever name is chosen, there will be spiritual logic to it,” said Michele Dillon, a Catholic scholar at the University of New Hampshire. “There’s a pattern whereby the pope takes the name of someone who was spiritually significant to that person.”
Though no one knows for sure, Dillon said there are a few names that may or may not be likely for the next pope.
Benedict XVII is an unlikely choice because it could cause confusion between the current pope and the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI.
There is a chance the new pope could adopt the name John XXIV due to the Catholic Church’s emphasis on “new evangelization.” Pope John XXIII is already on the path to sainthood, is known as “Good Pope John” and was a revolutionary figure who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that modernized the church.
Benedict XVI took the name of Benedict XV, who guided the Catholic Church through World War I. “Treading in his footsteps, I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples,” Benedict XVI said in his first general audience.
Benedict XVI also sought to honor St. Benedict, a major influence in early European Christianity.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II in 1978 to honor his short-lived predecessor John Paul I, who had picked his name from his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI.
Adopting a papal name became common in the 10th century, though there are examples of popes changing their names centuries before.
John II was the first pope to change his name, in 533. His birth name was Mercury, but in order to avoid naming a pagan god the head of the Holy See, he changed it.
The last pope to use his own birth name was Marcellus II in 1555.
One name, however, is off-limits: Peter is considered sacrosanct in honor of the first pope, who tradition holds was also the longest-serving.
Here’s a list of the most popular papal names to help the new pope get started:
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 Papal Names
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.)