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In Depth

The Pope

What's in a name?

For a new Pope, quite a bit

April 19, 2005

The newly elected Pope John Paul II during his first appearance as Pope on Oct. 16, 1978. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Pope Benedict XVI upon his election to the papacy. He will be known as Beno�t in French and Benedetto in Italian. Officially, in Latin, he is Benedictus PP. XVI.

His immediate processor in that name, Benedict XV, reigned from 1914 to 1922, and is considered as a moderate following the papacy of Pius X, who cracked down on "modernism" in the Catholic Church. Some analysts have said choosing this name could be an attempt to soften Ratzinger's image as a Vatican hard-liner.

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 was the most closely followed papal election to date, and Ratzinger's choice of Benedict XVI 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. Popes follow no established model in deciding on their name. Most often their choice honours 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.

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