[2 April 2005, as Pope John Paul II appears to be slipping away.]
When Albino Luciano was elected Pope in August 1978, he took the name "John Paul I". That was an odd and unprecedented choice for two reasons: first, there had never been a Pope before who took two names; and second, there had never been a Pope before who, choosing a novel name, added "the First" to it. That is usually added by history once a second Pope honours the first by taking his name.
He took the name "John Paul" because he wanted his Papacy to continue the good work done by both his immediate predecessors. Many saw Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI as quite different Popes. Certainly, they were different in many ways. Pope John Paul I perhaps did not want to show a preference for one or the other's style of leadership, so chose to emulate and honour them both.
Pope John Paul I died after only a month as Pope and Karol Wojtyla, from Poland, was elected in his stead. Cardinal Wojtyla chose to take the name "John Paul II". With the first John Paul having so little time to make any mark on the papacy, it was perhaps a sign of respect to his short memory, as well as agreement with his reasons for taking the two names.
But, what of the Pope who will succeed John Paul II?
Will he be John Paul III? There will be a strong incentive to want to demonstrate a willingness to continue in the same vein as this Pope. But, perhaps because it has been such a long papacy, there will also be an equally strong incentive to embark on a new path, and to demonstrate that intention immediately by choosing a different name as Pope. As is clear from the successive elections of Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI, the Cardinals are not averse to replacing an outgoing Pope with a man who is quite his opposite in many ways.
Assuming the new Pope chooses a name from a past Pope rather than using a novel one, what might the choices suggest about his view of the direction his papacy might take?
Pope John XXIII chose John, after a long line of Popes called Pius (broken by a Leo and a Benedict). John had not been used for hundreds of years, since John XXII (except by an anti-Pope!). It was a surprise choice, but given the stark difference between Pius XII and John XXIII, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose not to take Pius.
Paul VI, too, chose a name of one of the Apostles.
Given the greater emphasis on the Gospels in the post-Conciliar church, perhaps another Apostle's name might be appropriate, or even John or Paul. Enough time may now have passed that it would not seem partisan to choose either John or Paul rather than both.
Becoming John XXIV might indicate a desire to further reform the Church, to involve the Bishops more in decision-making (although that might would play to the myth of John XXIII's papacy rather than the reality). Becoming Paul VII might indicate a desire to continue the Church's strong moral stances, while being open to the world and to further change within the Church.
Becoming Pius XIII would suggest a return to tradition, and perhaps even the unwinding of some of the more radical changes that have occurred since Vatican II. A greater emphasis on things like Latin and Gregorian Chant in the liturgy, on absolute truth and grace and sacraments.
Becoming Leo XIV might suggest a desire to be ferocious in defending the Church (a Lion!) and a desire to transform the world, rather than bend to it. (Leo XIII is the source of much of the Church's modern teaching on the structure of society and the Church's relationship with nations.)
A Gregory might want to restore many of the Church's lost treasures: its beautiful liturgy and music.
Or perhaps a merciful Clement? a holy Benedict? a hopeful Innocent?
The one name we can be certain he will not choose is Peter.