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What's in a pope's name?

Published On: Feb 11 2013 07:59:52 AM CST
Pope Benedict XVI

David Ariosto/CNN

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 265th pope on April 19, 2005, and became Pope Benedict XVI.

He chose the name Benedict after St. Benedict of Nursia, patron saint of Italy, who founded the monastic Rule of St. Benedict in the sixth century, according to the Cultural Catholic.

"He represents a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a strong reminder of the unrenounceable Christian roots of its culture and civilization," Pope Benedict XVI has said.

According to conclave ritual, the new pope is asked to give his chosen name while the cardinals are still gathered in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

Choosing a papal name is not a required Catholic practice, but over the centuries, it has become a tradition.

The first pope to change his name was John II in 533. His birth name was Mercurius or Mercury, the name of a pagan god. Once an exception, the practice became tradition in 996, when Bruno, the first German pope, became Gregory V.

The last pope to keep his birth name was Marcellus II in 1555.

The most popular papal names over the centuries have been John (23 popes), Gregory (16), Benedict (16, including the current pope), Clement (14), Innocent (13) and Pius (12).

Benedict means "blessing" in Latin. It joins several other papal names of holy origin, including Clement ("mercy"), Innocent ("hopeful" or "innocent") and Pius ("pious").

New popes nowadays often pick the name of a favorite saint or pope.

On April 27, 2005, during his first General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Benedict XVI explained his choice:

"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," he said. "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."

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