Vatican watchers suggest that if the next Pope chose John, that would invoke memories of John XXIII, the reformer who launched the Second Vatican Council in 1962. But Pius - the name that has dominated the past two centuries, with seven Piuses reigning for 125 of the past 183 years - would suggest extreme conservatism, because all have been reactionaries.
Over the centuries, John has been the most popular name, followed by Gregory (16), Benedict (15), Clement (14) and Leo and Innocent (both 13).
Mercurius was the first Pope to take a new name, because he didn't want the pagan associations of his given name to sully his pontificate. Soon it became a tradition. Melbourne theologian William Johnston pointed out in the April issue of the literary magazine Quadrant that no Pope has taken a new name since Lando in 913. Exploring the merits of various names - and the reason why no Pope is likely to follow Pelagius (a heretic), Boniface (arrogance leading to schism in the church) or Julius (overwhelming ego) - Johnston suggests Vatican watchers could be misled. For example, a pope might take John Paul to placate conservatives while planning in fact to be entirely different.
He says that Martin, Urban, Leo or Felix would be both short and memorable, whereas Alexander, Sylvester and Celestine are unlikely. Johnston's own favourite would be Ambrose, after Ambrose of Milan, who died in 397 having "excelled equally as pastor, liturgist, administrator, writer and thinker... An Ambrose in the papacy might summon the courage to begin to apply to the workings of the Catholic Church at every level and in every locale precepts of Christian ethics.
Johnston is critical of John Paul II:
William Johnston: Yes, well here I think the Austrian example is very appropriate. This is where the Austrian bureaucrats would talk one party line and their Jewish critics would point out the hollowness of it, and I wish there were more Jewish critics of this papacy who could satirise this kind of thing, that it’s hollow, and very sad that the authorities can continue to talk about human potential being fulfilled and blossoming through the leadership of this Pope, which is to give one example. Most people contemplating old age today ion the democracies, talk about it as a widening, a broadening, an opening of horizons. This Pontiff modelled exactly the opposite; he narrowed, he constrained himself, he’s the exact opposite of a humanistic process of ageing, and yet we’re being told to celebrate him as a model of the opposite.
If I might, I’d like to read two verses from a poem by the great Australian poet, A.D. Hope, which he wrote on the death of Pius XII in 1958.
Stephen Crittenden: It’s a great poem.
William Johnston: And there are two verses, where having talked about the fire in the trees in New England autumn when the death occurred, he had heard that this Pontiff in his last years, Pius XII in his last years, had been spiritualised.
If to some lives at least, comes a stage
When all the active man now left behind,
They enter on the treasure of old age,
This autumn of the mind.
Then while the heart stands still
The dying animal knows a strange serene.
Emerging in its ecstasy of fire,
The burning soul is seen.
Will anyone say that of the last days of John Paul II? Because the ageing of this Pontiff was not about a burning soul going inward and being spiritualised, it was about a control freak exerting power over the leaders of his organisation, he’s, if you will, a bureaucrat to the end. It’s a cruel thing to say but that’s how I see it.
Stephen Crittenden: Will Johnston, thank you very much for being on the program.
William Johnston: Thank you, I enjoyed it.
Stephen Crittenden: Apparently, he was appointing bishops and accepting resignations literally on his deathbed.. William M. Johnston was Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts from 1965 to 1999 and he now teaches at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. His book ‘The Austrian Mind’ is published by University of California Press, and he has an article on the names chosen by the Popes in Quadrant this week.
Johnston appeared on the ABC (no transcript yet) and actually called for a new name, pointing out that 913 was the last time a new name was used. He suggested Paschal for the Easter mystery or Francis for obvious reasons. Before the last conclave it was said the new pope would take a name expressing his regard for all three of his predecessors and be called John John Paul Paul, but fortunately wiser counsel prevailed. I like Paschal and Francis. Patrick would be fine. John XXIV would be wonderful. John Paul III would b a disaster.