02/25/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Benedict and Beyond: What's in a Papal Name

When the successor to Benedict XVI is announced, much commentary will follow about the nationality, age and biography of the person selected to be the next bishop of Rome. This verbal flood will be offered in the hope of accurately anticipating what the new pontificate will be like. But the new pope will also have selected a name, and that name may give an especially good indication of what his priorities will be. When Joseph Ratzinger was elected in 2005, he chose the name Benedict, and that choice, as much as anything in his life history, from his German origins to his long stint as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been reflected and manifested in his eight-year reign.

In his first general audience after his election, Benedict XVI explained that he was inspired both by the last pope to have chosen that name, Benedict XV (reign, 1914-22), and by St. Benedict (ca. 480-547), founder of western monasticism, and co-patron of Europe.

Both of the Benedicts identified by Benedict XVI were Italians: St. Benedict of Nursia, in an era when the western Roman empire had disintegrated leaving a power and cultural vacuum on the Italian peninsula filled in part by the Church; Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa) in an age when the Holy See continued to contest incorporation of what had been the papal states into the kingdom of Italy.

St. Benedict is remembered as the father of monastic life in western Europe. His moderate, humane rule for monasteries became the norm for the way of life in countless monastic houses, whether for monks or for nuns. Unlike ascetical hermits, Benedict did not envision extreme feats of fasting and other austerity as the ideal to seek. He promoted a community life in which the common good, and care for one another, eclipsed individual displays of piety. Liturgy, not only Mass, but also and even especially the divine office (matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, compline) were to be the heart and soul of the monastic day: the chanting of the psalms, by the monastic community assembled in choir, under the authority of their abbot or abbess, would be absolutely central to this way of life. Reading of the Scriptures and patristic writings would also punctuate the day; the monastery was to facilitate and to foster the love of learning and the desire for God. Benedictine monasteries spread rapidly and were often the heart and soul of Christian faith and practice in many parts of Europe, through the Middle Ages and beyond.

Benedict XV was elected pope just as World War I began; his efforts to mediate a negotiated peace exhausted him, and produced no result whatsoever. One can well imagine his frustration. Neither side trusted him, even though he consistently and relentlessly affirmed the neutrality, and the impartiality of the Holy See. He did have some modest humanitarian success regarding treatment of prisoners of war, but this brought him little credit, and he was not permitted send a representative to the post-war peace conference at Versailles. His goal of a peaceful Europe went hand in hand with promotion of a Christian Europe, in an era when secularization and anticlericalism were rampant in countries such as Italy and France. In 1920 Benedict XV canonized French heroine Joan of Arc (1412-31) as part of process of at least some degree of reconciliation between the French republic and the Vatican. During the war, in 1917, Benedict had published the Code of Canon Law, a kind of systemization and centralization of Church law. For Benedict XV, a Europe in which the Catholic Church under the authority of the pope played a central role remained more a goal than an accomplishment.

That Benedict XVI has been an Italophile seems obvious enough, from his naming of large numbers of Italian cardinals, to his decision to remain in Rome after his resignation. And it seems that many of Pope Benedict XVI's priorities have in various ways been inspired by those of two Italians in particular, St. Benedict and Benedict XV, and that it is no accident that he will retire to a quasi-monastic setting. Like Benedict XV, Benedict XVI has used beatifications and canonizations to cultivate and encourage the Church in certain countries, in Europe or elsewhere. And Benedict XVI has been an eloquent voice for peace, not war, as the means to conflict resolution. But re-Christianization of an apparently post-Christian Europe has stood at or near the top of Benedict's concerns these past years. Benedictine monasteries were instrumental in spreading and sustaining the Christian faith in many parts of Europe; Pope Benedict has looked to a new evangelization to do a similar kind of thing, and he has devoted much energy to matters liturgical. He has authorized celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, and publication of a very literal English translation of the Latin version of the post-Vatican II Mass, with their resonances of centuries-old European tradition. These liturgical changes have fit his approach, for he sees faithful continuity with earlier eras as the most effective way of guaranteeing a future Church. What St. Augustine or St. Bonaventure or St. Benedict had to say has mattered to him more than what the latest poll favors. His Twitter account notwithstanding, Benedict XVI has been most at ease in a library surrounded by hefty tomes of Latin theology, and not with the babble of instantaneous electronic messaging.

By no means would all Benedictines today, monks or nuns, approve of this pope's particular interpretation or appropriation of Benedictine tradition; and it is certainly possible that a future Pope Benedict, XVII or XVIII, for example, could have a different interpretation and application of St. Benedict's legacy, and indeed of that of earlier popes with the name Benedict.

That said, when the new pope is announced, I suggest that attention to the name he chooses will give precious insight into the kinds of things he will seek to appropriate from the past, to emphasize in the present, and to prioritize for the future.

Past Popes