What’s in a papal name?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Monday 03, June 2013 | Category:   Church History

A FRIEND wrote me an email during those fateful hours last March as we all watched for smoke to come from a certain Vatican chimney. “Do these cardinals all go into the conclave with a papal name up their sleeves, just in case they’re elected?” she asked. “You don’t want to be unprepared, and then blurt out a name like “Bluto!”

Pope Francis
THE FIRST Pope Francis.

Having few cardinals in my acquaintance, I can’t say for sure. I imagine those deemed largely non-papabile among the cardinalcy don’t lose much sleep over the name. But contenders surely give it a great deal of thought. Papal names send signals, as the surprising choice of “Francis” recently verified. Everyone now expects a pontifical swerve away from power and structure and toward the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps with attention paid to the beasts and the natural world, too. That’s why the most popular papal names—John (23), Benedict (16), Clement (14), Leo and Innocent (both 13), and Pius (12)—have had so many takers. The originators of these names, as well as many of their successors, have legacies deemed attractive and imitable to their spiritual protege. (Being the first "Francis," the pope doesn't have a number after his name.)

The one-off papal names, by contrast, didn’t have that sort of appeal. Lando, Sisinnius, Hormisdas, Simplicius, Hilarus, or Hyginus, anyone? So far, 46 one-and-done popes have reigned, and if we never see another Pope Fabian or Valentine, that will probably be OK—which doesn’t imply that the one-offs were failed leaders by any means. Peter, for example, was the original of the breed. His name has been retired apparently out of respect. Linus, Clement, and Cornelius, while never repeated, were significant enough to garner everlasting note in Eucharistic Prayer I used at Mass. A few names were certainly sullied by the dubious reigns of anti-popes (illicit rival contenders), nasty or corrupt fellows, or slackers who accomplished little and were never considered for the titular suffix “the Great.”

In fact, one way to deal with a bad papacy is to take up the name, dust it off, and reuse it. That happened with two antipopes, John VIII and John XXIII, whose names were reappropriated by better men. On the other hand, John XVI’s anti-papacy was deemed illegitimate but the number not reused. John XX never existed at all; that number was deliberately skipped when John XXI determined to straighten out the John numbering once and for all. He died, however, from injuries sustained when his study collapsed on him. Perhaps one really can overthink the name.

Scripture
• On the significance of names: Genesis 17:5, 15; 32:28-31; Judges 13:17-18; 1 Samuel 1:20; Isaiah 7:14; 8:3-4; Hosea 1:6-2:1; Matthew 1:21-23; 16:18-19; Luke 1:13, 31-32

Online
• List of popes and antipopes

Books
• 101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy by Christopher M. Bellitto (Paulist Press, 2008)
• The Papacy by Paul Johnson (The Orion Publishing Group, 2005)

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