The name chosen by the next pope will be his first decision -- and the first clue to how he will lead the Roman Catholic Church.
Once a pontiff is elected in the Sistine Chapel, he is asked which name he will use. The last pope, Benedict XVI, said he took the name to link himself to Benedict XV, who led the church from 1914 to 1922 and “guided the church through the turbulent times of the First World War.”
The same name evoked St. Benedict of Norcia, who “constitutes a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of European culture and civilization,” Benedict XVI explained, according to the Catholic News Agency. Tying himself to those two historic figures resonated with his push to reenergize the faith in Europe.
As the cardinals were voting, “all of them are thinking about it,” said Chester Gillis, theologian and dean at Georgetown University. “They have a name in mind when they ask, ‘By what name do you wish to be called?’”
Oddsmakers betting on the name for the new pope have put Leo at the top of their lists. A new Pope Leo would have a progressive ring, harkening back to Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), whose Rerum Novarum encyclical laid out the problems of the working classes and “inspired a vast Catholic social literature,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It could signal the new pope would tackle social justice issues.
In contrast, Pius, one of the most popular papal names throughout history, would evoke Pius X (1903-1914), who rejected modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine and declared his foes “want to be treated with oil, soap and caresses … they should be beaten with fists,” according to the Catholic Herald. The name would also recall Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), whose actions during the Holocaust continue to be fervently debated.
Still more daunting would be a Pope Boniface, a name that would conjure up “everything said about Pius, but turned up till your ears bleed,” Michael Brendan Dougherty recently wrote in Slate magazine.
“It would be a gutsy man who took up the name of Boniface after Dante cast the imperious Boniface VIII into the Eighth Circle of Hell” in his epic work “Inferno,” Dougherty explained.
A pope choosing to be called John would echo John XXIII (1958-1963) and his Vatican II, which aimed to address the relationship between the church and the modern world. John “would be a very strong, progressive name,” Gillis said. “You pick that name and it says, ‘I might have a Vatican III.’ ”
Another bold choice would be a Pope Celestine, recalling Pope Celestine V who resigned the office in 1294, centuries before Benedict XVI. Gillis said choosing such a name would signal the new pontiff was willing to step down too.
The next pontiff could also try to honor more recent popes, declaring himself Benedict XVII to honor the resigned pope emeritus, or becoming John Paul III in recollection of the pontiff who died in 2005.
However, Reuters noted that since the last John Paul has been dubbed “John Paul the Great” by his supporters, the next pope might be reluctant to risk being remembered as “John Paul the Less.” University of New Hampshire religion scholar Michele Dillon told Religion News Service that another Benedict was unlikely since it could be too confusing with the former pope still around.
Less common – and less popular with the oddsmakers – are names such as Sergius and Sixtus, let alone long-ago rarities such as Simplicius and Pelagius. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an American rumored to be a possible contender for pope, joked with comedian Stephen Colbert that he would claim the name Stephen, a papal name that hasn’t been used since 1058, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Perhaps most unlikely of all is a Pope Peter II, a name that no pope has adopted since the first pontiff. Comparing oneself to the revered first pope is seen as exceeding presumptuous; a millennium ago, a pontiff whose actual name was Pietro – Peter – opted to be called Sergius IV instead.