7 Things: Popular Papal Nomenclature
The cardinals have been sworn in. The extra omnes has been proclaimed. The doors have been closed. Now comes that really exciting moment in the Catholic version of watching the pain dry. I’m on the edge of my seat.
In the last weeks, the world’s attention turned to the papabili, those candidates for the office of the Supreme Pontiff considered most electable. Now that they are invisible to the world, we won’t see them again until one emerges dressed in white. For the next 24-72 hours or more, the question shifts not to whom the eyes of all the world will see on the loggia, but what he will call himself.
Thus, I present to you the latest in our 7 Things series: 7 Things You Should Know About Popular Papal Nomenclature. The following are the seven most common papal names, together with some of their historical highlights (and a few notes regarding the current conclave).
- John (23 popes, 1 saint, 1 blessed): Not only was John the first chosen name of a pope – John II was given the pagan name Mercurius at birth – it was also a name used disproportionately for foreign popes in the early centuries of the papacy, including Syrians, Greeks, and Dalmatians (not the kind with the spots). Some Johns were corrupt, others were very holy and learned. Most recently, Blessed John XXIII, remembered for his joyful spirit, sat on the Throne of Peter from 1958-1963 and opened the Second Vatican Council. If the next pope took the name John XXIV, it would probably be intended as a symbol of the joy and hope the new pope intended to usher in, but might instead be taken by some as pointing to more of the uneasiness the council inadvertently caused.
- Gregory (4 saints, 1 blessed): Among the 16 Gregorian popes, Gregory the Great – a Doctor of the Church – stands out as the most notable with his reputation for sanctity, scholarship, and sacred liturgy. Many of the others were known for their learning and piety. Other Gregories of note include Gregory VII, whose serious, no-nonsense demeanor and German surname – Hildebrand – earned him the moniker Hellbrand. As an interesting historical note, Gregory X – not even a priest at his election – was the first pope elected in a true conclave after a 3-year sede vacante period and it was he who established the conclave as a perpetual institution. With continued historical interest, it was Gregory XI who returned the papacy from Avignon to Rome and Gregory XII who abdicated in order to end the Great Western Schism. In light of that, between the current touchiness about papal abdication and Gregory XVI’s hatred of trains – he reportedly called railroad lines “roads of hell” – it’s unlikely the new pope would choose the name, but if he did, he’d be known as Gregory XVII. Personally, I like it and it is currently winning Fr. Z’s poll on the new papal name.
- Benedict (16 popes, 1 saint, 1 blessed): It probably wouldn’t be a wise move to take the name of Benedict right after another Benedict abdicated, unless the new pope wanted to live the idea of the Re-Elect Benedict movement. If he did, he’d probably do so not only in honor of his most recent predecessor, but also for St. Benedict of Nursia – the same reason Benedict XVI chose the name. Benedict II, a Scripture scholar known as a holy, generous man and Benedict IV (called “the Great” by one biographer) are also of note, but given the current climate in the curia, it still might not be a wise choice: Benedict XIII was a skilled theologian undermined by a close advisor (Vatileaks, the prequel?). One really cool side note, though, it was Benedict XIII’s ordination of 139 bishops for Europe and the Americas that allowed Cardinal Scipione Rebiba to become the apostolic ancestor of over 90% of today’s bishops. Still an unlikely choice, but another Benedict would, of course, be called Benedict XVII.
- Clement (14 popes, 1 saint, 0 blesseds): Clement is a name so uncommon in modern history that it makes one do a double take. Perhaps the ancient roots it implies – Clement I was only the 4th pope and, reigning while the Apostle John was still alive, was the first of the Apostolic Fathers – would be just the death knell to modernist trends a traditional-minded pope might look for. Still, it was an unpopular name for nearly 1000 years, until it was taken by a German, perhaps to earn Roman favor. Clement III fought the Saracen invaders with the 3rd Crusade while Clement VIII fought the Protestant Reformation alongside his friend, St. Philip Neri. Clement IX was known as a good manager, while other recent Clements strongly opposed Freemasonry and the Enlightenment. Given the current needs of the Church, Clement XV might be a great name for the next pope.
- Innocent (13 popes, 1 saint, 2 blesseds): While some of the Innocents were anything but, there are a few important examples of Innocents, flawed though they were, who did great work for the Church. Innocent I opposed Manichaeanism and Montanism. Innocent II fought against a schism led by an antipope. Blessed Innocent XI opposed the Four Articles of Gallicanism, by which Louis XIV intended to do in France something similar to what Henry VIII had done in England. Most famously, it was Innocent III who dreamed of Francis, the little poverello of Assisi, holding up St. John Lateran, and gave his subsequent and speedy approval to the fledgling order that would renew the face of Christian Europe. Still, the name of Innocent seems to be begging for someone to prove otherwise, and frankly, I can’t prepare myself for all the Britney Spears jokes. Innocent XIV? I kind of hope not.
- Leo (13 popes, 5 saints, 0 blesseds): One of the most popular saint-popes, Leo the Great is famous not only for his arguments against Pelagianism and Manichaeanism, but even more so for warding off Attila the Hun. Leo III suffered physically for the faith, beaten at the hands of the family of a papal predecessor. Leo IV built the famous Leonine Walls in Rome to protect the Church from Saracen invaders. Sadly, Leo X is also known in infamy for uttering the phrase, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Financial mismanagement, sale of Church property, and the serious misuse of indulgences only exacerbated the Lutheran revolt, whose leader and namesake he excommunicated. Fortunately, history and divine providence answered his embrace of the worldly with another Leo to balance out the name’s history. Leo XIII is remembered as a great advocate of Catholic society amidst increasing secularization and his prayer to St. Michael the Archangel is still recited at the end of Mass to this day in many parishes. I think most people would see Leo XIV as an homage to Leo the Great and Leo XIII. Plus, you can’t be lame when your name means lion.
- Pius (12 popes, 3 saints, 0 blesseds): If Clement is a cool name for surviving a nearly millennium-long drought of popularity, then Pius is all the more cool. From 155-1458, a total of 1303 years, no pope was known as Pius. Maybe that’s because it sounds like a sissy name until you look at the history of its bearers. Pius I opposed the Gnostics and Marcionites in Rome. Pius II tried to convert the Sultan of the Turks who were invading Christendom. That takes guts. The Piuses have been master statesmen: Pius VI suspended the priests who accepted the secular Civil Constitution of the Clergy in France and Blessed Pio Nono (Pius IX) spoke out against many errors of his time – his Syllabus of Errors is still relevant today. Pius XI and XII guided the Church through WWII, boldly condemning Nazism and saving Jews as they did (though many falsely accuse Pius XII of complicity with the Nazis). Most famously, St. Pius V, a Dominican – he’s the reason popes wear white in the first place – known for his holiness, fasting, and prayer, strongly opposed Protestantism and the Turkish invasion at the famous Battle of Lepanto. Some of the Piuses have also had reputations for holiness. Pius IV was friends with Charles Borromeo, his nephew, and Philip Neri, both beloved saints influential in the Counter-Reformation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, St. Pius X was a liturgical reformer who placed such great emphasis on the reception of the Eucharist that he lowered the age of First Holy Communion. Pius XIII would make a great name, though, due to the lies told about Pius XII, I don’t think it would be received well in the media, which unfortunately tends to have a great deal of sway over the minds of the Catholics in the pews.
Or … maybe he’ll take a new name.
What about you. What name do you think he should pick? Let me know in the comments!