New pope’s choice of name will carry his first message

March 13, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI waves from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican after being elected by the conclave of cardinals April 19, 2005 /REUTERS

Even before he utters his first words in public, the new pope who emerges from the conclave this week will send Roman Catholics around the world a message encoded in the name he chooses.

It may not be one they immediately understand. Picking an unlikely one from the distant papal past – for example, Hilarus or Zephyrinus – would send Catholics scurrying to their history books to see what it could mean.

But one harking back to modern popes – Benedict or John Paul or John – would signal right away the new leader of 1.2 billion faithful wants continuity with the papacy his name refers to.

One name making the rounds in Rome before the 115 cardinal electors filed into the Sistine Chapel for their conclave on Tuesday was Francis, a name Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley might take if he emerges as the new pontiff.

O’Malley is a Franciscan friar who prefers the brown habit and white rope belt of his Capuchin order to his red cardinal’s finery. No pope has ever taken the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century reformer who lived in poverty and told followers: “Preach the Gospel always, if necessary use words.”

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