Pope's Chosen Name Will Set Tone for Papacy

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When the white smoke curls out the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the new pope will be asked to make his first decision -- choosing a name.

The man who is elected pontiff, likely to be one of the 115 cardinal electors, will have two millennia of history to contemplate before he chooses a moniker.

The tradition of taking a papal name dates back to 533 when Pope John II became the first to adopt a new name. He felt his birth name, Mercurius, was inappropriate since it was also the name of a pagan God.

"For almost all popes, taking a name tells us something about their objectives for their pontificate. If we look at the last couple of popes, we can see that," said Matthew Bunson, general editor of the Catholic Almanac.

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On April 19, 2005, the man who was previously known as Joseph Ratzinger, stood on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica where he was introduced to the world as Pope Benedict XVI.

In his first general audience as pontiff, Benedict XVI said he chose the name to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who led the church through the turmoil of World War I.

"He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences," Benedict XVI said.

Elected in a time of increasing European secularism, Benedict XVI said he was also influenced by St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order that "exercised an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity throughout the European continent."

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If the next pope takes the name Pius, the oddsmakers' favorite, with 9 to 2 odds from Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, it may signal a conservative papacy, Bunson said.

"The popes who took the name Pius have been very great defenders of tradition in the church," he said. "The Piuses have also tended to serve during times of great upheaval."

The new pope may also look outside the handful of names that have been used in the church and choose a new name, or perhaps a combination of two.

John Paul I, known as the "smiling pope," was the first pontiff to choose a dual-moniker, expressing solidarity with his immediate predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI.

"He chose to create a new name that had never been used before and that was because he wanted to declare to the church and the world that he was someone who was in continuity with two previous popes," Bunson said.

John Paul I died 33 days into his papacy. When Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old Polish cardinal, was elected at the next conclave in 1978, he took the message of continuity to heart and chose the papal name John Paul II.

The wildly popular pontiff became the first "celebrity" pope, crisscrossing the globe and winning over crowds with his charisma.

Oddsmakers seem to think the world may be ready for a Pope John Paul III. It's the second most popular name in the running, with 5 to 1 odds.

Other names being discussed include Pope John XXIV, with 10 to 1 odds, and Benedict XVII, with 12 to 1 odds.

While the cardinals cast their secret ballots four times a day until a two-thirds consensus is reached, the frontrunners may be mulling over potential papal names in their heads, Bunson said.

And it's certain that when one of the likely 115 emerges on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica wearing white, he's going to have some explaining to do.