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Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli
Karol Józef Wojtyła
In the Roman Catholic Church it is the usual practice for a person to take an additional name at Confirmation. The motivation that lies behind the assuming of a religious name – both a rebirth and a rejection of one’s former worldly identification – seems to have influenced a category of name change that has been regularly observed since the 11th century. This is the change of name undertaken by the pope upon his election. It is not in fact obligatory to assume a new name, but an old custom. Although two popes, in fact did not change their name - Adrian VI (pope in 1522–1523) and Marcellus II (in 1955) - in practice every pope has changed his name since Peter, bishop of Pavia, assumed the name John in 983. It is believed he made this change out of reverence for St. Peter, the first pope: in his Epitaph he says that he took on a new name ‘quia Petrus antea extiterat’ [because Peter existed before].
Most popes have come to assume the name of a predecessor, there is one name however, that no pope will adopt, and this name is Peter. A tradition exist, or a superstition, if one dare mention such a thing with regard to the head of the Roman Catholic church, if a pope named ‘Peter II’ is elected he will be the last of all popes. The very early pope changed their names simply because their original names were pagan. In more recent time the motives for a papal name change have become a good deal more complex, and have included such factors as veneration for a particular predecessor of the same name, a 'specialisation' in the works of a predecessor, or simply a coincidence of election date or of a place or region of origin. The name John is easily ‘top of the popes.’ No less than 23 popes have assumed the name in its ‘neat’ form – the last of this being Angelo Roncalli who became John XXIII in 1958 – with the name is used in combined form by two recent popes, John Paul I (Albino, elected 1978, and in office for only 33 days), and John Paul II, his successor (Karol Wojtyla, elected that same year, and the first non-Italian pope since 1522).
John has long been a popular Christian name at all levels, in many, countries, largely thanks to the two important New Testament characters, John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, ‘the two men who were closest to Christ the Lord’ – as Angelo Roncalli designated them when explaining his own reasons for choosing the name. Roncalli’s account of his motives for assuming the name John, in fact, give us as clear a picture as any regarding the popularity of the name, as well as an insight into one individual pope’s choice. Apart from the biblical pedigree, the name was dear to him, he said, since it was his father’s name, it was the dedication of the village church in Lombardy where he was baptized, as well as that of many cathedrals throughout the world, including the Lateran basilica of San Giovanni in Rome, and of course it was the name of 22 of his predecessors. For the future John XXIII, therefore, the name was selected on a careful combination of historical, religious, and personal grounds. Significantly, the name was in turn adopted, with specific reference to John XXIII’s reforming spirit, by his two successors John Paul I and John Paul II, with the latter combining homage to both John XXIII and John Paul I, whose policies he intended to pursue.
Room, A. (1981), ‘Why Another Name?’, Naming Names, p.10
Room, A. (1981), ‘Invented Names’, Naming Names, p.49
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