I have always been proud of my given name. There were several great men named Joe in the Bible. Joe was Jesus’ earthly father. A guy named Joe donated the tomb in which they laid Jesus to rest. And that fellow in the Old Testament with the Technicolor Dreamcoat was named Joe.
So when we got a new pope last year, I was excited that his name was Joseph Ratzinger. There had never been a Pope Joe before. At last, this fine name had a chance to be recognized in all its papal greatness.
But waitaminnit. Cardinal Ratzinger decided he didn’t like “Joe”. He was going to go down in history as Pope Benedict XVI. There would be no Pope Joe I.
Needless to say, I was crushed. “Benedict” may be a fine name in Vatican circles, but in American culture, it conjures up images of the traitor, Mr. Arnold. Nobody names their kid “Benedict” any more. Benjamin, perhaps. But Benedict sounds so 18th century.
That got me to thinking about why popes are named the way they are. Why don’t they like the names their own mother gave them? And what’s with all the X’s and V’s and I’s? So I did a little research.
It can all be traced to a 6th century monk named Mercurius. He had the distinct misfortune of being named by his mother after the Roman god Mercury. Poor kid. He might as well have been named Darth Vader. All the other kids in seminary laughed at him.
That is, until they he was elected pope. Funny how life-changing events like that turns everybody’s perspective around.
Knowing that he was due the last laugh, he could have gone on with his life as Pope Mercury. But there was something, well, sacrilegious about that. It was a legacy that he couldn’t bear to take credit for.
So he started a new trend. He decided that he should be named after his favorite ex-pope, who had reigned just a decade or so before. Nobody was going to argue because, hey, he’s the Pope. And that’s how Monk Mercury became known as Pope John II.
The Catholic Church treats tradition with as much respect as Tevye’s prayer shawl. So when one pope decides to do something, most of the others follow suit. For that reason, virtually every pope after that has assumed the name of some previous pope. There’s really no reason for it. It’s just something that Mercury, I mean, John II did. And it seems like a quaint little tradition to uphold for 1500 years.
But all those Roman numerals get messy sometimes. After all, there’s a finite number of names to pick from, so they start getting reused rather quickly. And it seems like every other one likes the name John. Or Paul. Or John Paul. Which brings us to an interesting story about Pope John XX.
When popes first started borrowing names from each other, nobody cared much to keep track of everything. (The marketing geniuses at the nfl figured out that numbering Super Bowls with Roman numerals was pretty cool; the marketing guys at the Vatican weren’t that on the ball.) After a while, there were a bunch of Johns and Pauls and Stephens piling up and somebody decided to make sense of it all. So here come the Roman numerals.
But that got even more complicated with anti-popes and the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire). How do you count the guys that laid claim to the papacy but that were later found to be heretics? Or how do you count heretics that were martyred although they were later found to be true men of God?
It took several hundred years to sort it all out. After a bunch of arguing about who’s “in” and who’s “out” as a pope, they settled on a bunch of numbers to give everybody.
And all was fine until the year 1276 when Pedro Hispano — the first Portuguese pope — wanted to be called John. Oops. They found out that he was only the nineteenth Pope to be named John, but there was already a Pope John XIX. So for some reason, they decided to skip a number and Pedro became John XXI. For that reason, there is no Pope John XX. And there never will be, either.
There’ll probably never be a Pope Joe I, either. I think that’s a shame. It’s such a nice name.