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NEWS STORY: What’s in a Name? For a New Pope, Quite a Bit

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, he took the name of John Paul II. Legend has it that the first Pole to become pontiff had considered choosing Stanislaus during the conclave, presumably to pay homage to the 11th century saint from his homeland. But Cardinal Franz Koenig […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, he took the name of John Paul II. Legend has it that the first Pole to become pontiff had considered choosing Stanislaus during the conclave, presumably to pay homage to the 11th century saint from his homeland. But Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna convinced him otherwise.

John Paul seemed an obvious, easy option, blending both his short-lived immediate predecessor, John Paul I, and the popes just before, Paul VI and John XXIII, the two architects of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The assumption of a new name for a new pope following a papal election has no basis in theology, nor is it prescribed by canon law or any papal edict. The now-common practice dates back to the late 10th century, according to Frederic Baumgartner, professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of “Behind Locked Doors: A History of Papal Elections.”

Examples of modified monikers exist before then _ in 532, following a two-month election, a priest by the name of Mercury was chosen. To avoid sullying the chair of Peter with a pagan name, he became John II.

But it was not until German king and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III controlled the papacy by securing elections for those he designated, often of Germanic descent, that the name change became more routine, said Baumgartner.

In an attempt to sound more Roman, Bruno, the first German pope, changed his name to Gregory V in 996, and the practice began to stick. The last pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, in 1555.

The latest conclave will mark the most closely followed papal election to date, and the next pope’s choice of name is sure to invite scrutiny from Vatican watchers, pundits around the globe, and average Catholics alike, who will read into it portents of the papacy ahead.

A John Paul III seems unlikely, given that John Paul II served for 26 (elected Oct. 1978) years and his successor may want to signal a break with the immediate past.

“It’s been a papacy where there are a lot of different ways to claim its legacy,” said Thomas Noble, director of the Medieval Institute at University of Notre Dame. “To name yourself John Paul III would be an attempt to redefine what you thought was John Paul II’s legacy. You could end up straitjacketing yourself.”

Pius, as well, appears an improbable choice, given the controversy surrounding the possible sainthood for Pius IX and Pius XII _ the former accused of kidnapping a young Jewish boy and raising him Catholic, and the latter criticized for not doing enough to save Jews during World War II.

Popes follow no established model in deciding on their name. Most often their choice honors a predecessor whom they admire, or who appointed them bishop or cardinal. Giuseppe Sarto took Pius X in 1903, during a period of tension and political standoff between the Vatican and the Italian state, out of respect for earlier Piuses who had suffered for the church.

In 1831, Mauro Cappellari, the last monk to become pope, chose Gregory XVI because he held Gregory the Great and Gregory VII in high esteem. The name also suggested to European rulers that he would play an active role in the region.

In 1605, Alessandro de Medici took Leo XI in honor of his great-uncle, Leo X, while Alessandro Ludovisi chose Gregory XV for a fellow Gregory from the northern Italian city of Bologna. Emilio Altieri picked Clement X as a reference to Clement IX, who had made him a cardinal just one month before his election. Giovanni Albani became Clement XI in 1700 because he was elected on the feast of St. Clement.

Foes of the authoritarian 16th century Julius II claimed he had looked to Julius Caesar when choosing his name, Baumgartner said, though his choice also may have been related to his given name, Giuliano.

The only time a pope had to resign himself to his second choice came in 1464. Pietro Barbo declared he would become Formosus II, but since “formosus” means beautiful in Latin and Barbo was known for his vanity, he settled on Paul II.

The next pope might do well to reach far back into history and choose a name unfettered by polemics or politics _ Linus, for example, the second pope in history, or Hyginus, a 2nd century pontiff renowned for his virtue.

The boldest choice of all? Peter II, in honor of the apostle to whom Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Tradition, however, has held the name sacrosanct, never to be repeated.

KRE/JM END CIPOLLA