Naming the Pope
As I write this, a papal conclave in Rome is charged with the profound duty of naming a new pope. And once they do name him, he will have to name himself.
For more than 1000 years, newly elected popes have adopted a regnal name to represent their papacy. In one sense, this is the most tradition-bound of naming decisions. The name must be a deep and pure reflection of Catholic history and values. Most often, the choice is to honor a previous pope as a holy role model. The four most common papal names, John, Benedict, Gregory and Clement, have accounted for 55 of the 129 popes since re-naming became standard a millennium ago.
Yet from another perspective, the pope's name choice might be seen as the ultimate example of the modern naming experience. Rather than choosing a name based on personal, private-facing meanings, like honoring a grandparent, today's parents increasingly focus on public-facing impact. And no name is under more pressure and scrutiny as a signal to the public than the name of a new pope.
Since each pope's name points to specific individuals who preceded him, the name choice is taken as a symbol of the kind of leadership he hopes to bring to the church. For instance, when Cardinal Albino Luciani took the unconventional step of naming himself after both of his immediate papal predecessors as John Paul I, it was taken as a strong symbol of continuity. In particular, he was believed to be signalling that he would stay the course with the controversial reforms of Vatican II.
Observers are already speculating on what name-signal the next pope will send. The choice to adopt the name Leo XIV, for instance, could represent a commitment to social justice on the model of Leo XIII. That association has made Leo the favorite of bettors placing wagers on the name choice.
It's a stark illustration of the power of names: the ability to express an entire philosophy of faith and leadership in a single word. I'd be intrigued to see our secular leaders take on the renaming challenge. In fact, let me propose it to the moderators of the next round of U.S. presidential debates. Ask the candidates, "If you had to assign yourself a new presidental name, what would it be?"
Update: Just hours after I published this, the cardinals sent up white smoke and the world met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis. The name Francis resonates deeply in Catholicism; variations of it are borne by dozens of saints. Yet no pope has ever been named Francis, making it a dramatic choice.
Much will be written about this name in the days to come, but the early reaction is that the new pope has managed to send two very different messages at once. The image of St. Francis of Assisi makes the name Francis a strong symbol of poverty, humility, simplicity, and stewardship of nature. Yet the decision to step outside of the papal lineage and link himself directly to figures like Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier suggests a leader who isn't afraid to break new ground and shake up "business as usual." In other words, the name manages to present the pontiff and his church as both thoroughly modest and thoroughly bold.