Q: Why do popes always seem to choose a previously used name? If they are doing so to honor a previous pope, how can we tell which one? Did Pope Benedict choose his name to honor Benedict I or Benedict XV, or someone in between?
A: Now there’s an interesting question! If you take a peek at the Bible, you’ll see that there are a few times where God changes someone’s name. Take a look at this passage from Genesis 32: Jacob was left there alone. Then some man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail over him, he struck Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the hip socket was wrenched as they wrestled. The man then said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “What is your name?” the man asked. He answered, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.”
If you get a chance, be sure and read the whole chapter – it’s a pretty amazing story. So, Jacob, whose name meant “laughter,” had his name changed to Israel, which means “wrestles with God” or “contends with God.” Here’s a passage from Matthew 16: When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Here, we see God taking Simon, whose name means “pebble” and changing his name to “Peter” which means “rock.” In both cases, God changed a person’s name. In the first, God changed Jacob’s name because of a momentous event. In the second, Jesus changes Simon’s name because he gave Peter a significant mission and purpose.Peter’s whole life changed and he became the rock on which Jesus would build his church. In the same way, when someone becomes pope, he experiences both of those things: a momentous event and a new mission. The momentous event is, of course, being named pope. The new mission is to continue to build on the rock that Jesus gave us. That’s the “why” of the name change. In regards to why they pick the names they pick, they do so to indicate the kind of pope they are going to be. They pray very seriously about what God is calling them to do as pope and then chose a name that will signify that special calling. On April 27, 2005, Pope Benedict explained why he chose the name Benedict: Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps, I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples. Additionally, I recall St. Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe. I ask him to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life: May Christ always take first place in our thoughts and actions!
So, there ya go! Our pope chose his name to honor and emulate two different Benedicts. He chose Pope Benedict XV so that he could use his papacy to be a man of peace and reconciliation. He chose St. Benedict of Nursia so that he could help guide people to a deeper commitment to their Catholic roots. What a blessing we have in Pope Benedict! Let’s be sure and hold him in our hearts and prayers. Enjoy another day in God’s presence!