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The Pope’s New Name

When Cardinal Albino Luciani was elected to succeed Pope Paul VI in 1978, the television network I was watching jumped the gun and flashed this name on the bottom of the screen: John XXIV.
The network had just broadcast live the announcement by the dean of the College of Cardinals, which ended with the words “qui sibi nomen imposuit Joannes Paulus” — “who takes the name John Paul.”
Whoever was monitoring the Latin for the network picked up “Joannes” but not “Paulus,” and in its eagerness to get the name out first, the network got it wrong.
In its way, the network’s ambition was understandable; there is always a lot of interest in the name taken by a new pope, as there will be when the consistory elects a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
This wasn’t always true.
Beginning with the apostle Peter, the supreme leaders of the Church used their baptismal names until the year 533, when Mercúrio, a Roman cleric, was elected pope and decided that his name, after a pagan god, would not be appropriate.
He chose the name John II after a pope who had died for the faith a few years earlier in the sixth century.
This practice was adopted sporadically until the end of the tenth century when it became the custom. Even then, there were exceptions until the 16th century. The last pope to use his baptismal name was Marcellus II, who was elected in 1555.
Since then, the men chosen to lead the church have had various reasons for picking what is known as their “regnal names” – sometimes to honor a predecessor or a mentor or a patron, sometimes to honor a family member, sometimes to signal the anticipated tone of the new papacy.
Although it may not always be the conscious intent, this practice of taking a new name has a powerful symbolism that I always refer to when I am baptizing a child.
We begin the liturgy of baptism by asking the parents, “What name do you give this child?” Although the name was chosen before that day, I ask those present to think about a new name as a sign of a new state of life – in the case of the child, a life without original sin, a life touched by grace.
We see in our tradition several examples of this symbolism: at God’s summons to a new state of life Abram becomes Abraham, Cephas becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul.
I like to reinforce for those attending a baptism liturgy that God calls us by name — not only this child, not only the saints, but each of us, and not only once, on the day of our baptism or our election, but over and over again.
The process of electing a pope is going to take place during Lent, during the season of new beginnings.
Whatever speculation we may hear about who the pope will be and what he will do, we can pray that his election, and in his adopted name, will be signs of the Spirit of God renewing the face of the earth.
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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