Leo the Great

Pope St Leo the Great persuades Attila the Hun not to sack Rome. A good
model for the new Pope, perhaps, in dealing with modern barbarians…

Bookies are taking bets on the next Pope. Given that the odds on four out of the last five Popes were very long indeed, it’s important to check the form of outside contenders.

Silvio Berlusconi is Italian and has a lot of experience in administration, but at 76 he is probably too old. Oddschecker is offering 2500/1. Bono scores highly on social activism and would wow the crowds at World Youth Days, but it’s not clear whether he is a Catholic. Oddschecker is offering 1000/1.

It’s odds on that Richard Dawkins isn’t a Catholic, but stranger things have happened. One of the towering figures of the early Church, Ambrose, was elected bishop of Milan in 374 even though he hadn’t been baptised. In fact, compared to Silvio, or even Tony Blair (5000/1), Oddschecker reckons that Dawkins is in there with a chance at 666/1.

While this may sound ridiculous, it makes as much sense as much of the feverish media speculation about which cardinal will be chosen.

This must be the world’s most peculiar election for high office. Anyone ambitious for the job will never get it. Campaigning is forbidden. There is no form guide from previous elections because electors are sworn to secrecy. Certainly the cardinals are looking for administrative ability, along with holiness and wisdom, but – as Cardinal George Pell, of Sydney, says – a good performance on a country track doesn’t guarantee a win in the Melbourne Cup. What could prepare a man for the responsibility of governing a Church with more than a billion members?

Much easier is having a flutter on the name of the next Pope. The stunned cardinal will have only a few moments to pluck his name out of the air. “Quo nomine vis vocari? By what name do you wish to be called?” In that moment of high emotion, he is unlikely to grasp at something transcendently original, like Pope Elvis I. How about a trending name like Pope Aiden or Pope Jackson, the two most popular boy’s names in the US last year? Probably not. 

A Pope’s name sends a message to the faithful about his plans for his reign. Apart from the meaning of the word itself, it refers obliquely to the policies and achievements of his predecessors. John XXIII chose John because it was short and humble – as he expected his pontificate to be. It also closed the chapter of another John XXIII, an anti-Pope who reigned from 1410 to 1415. Paul VI (1963-1978) chose Paul, after Paul the Apostle, to indicate his desire for Catholic evangelisation.

By including the names of his two predecessors, John Paul I, who reigned only 33 days, suggested both continuity with their policies and originality, fresh air in the Vatican. Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II in another nod to continuity. The name that Joseph Ratzinger chose, Benedict, refers both to the last Benedict, Benedict XV, who worked for peace during World War I, and St Benedict, the 6th-century abbot who helped to shape Western Christendom. The next pope will definitely not take the name Benedict, though, as two Benedicts in the Vatican, one emeritus and one reigning, would be confusing. 

So what messages will the new Pope send? The pundits say that he should reach out to “separated brethren” (the Orthodox and Protestants) and to Catholic dissidents. He should reform the rickety administration in the Vatican Curia. He should bolster self-confidence and piety in a secularised world. He should deal decisively with doctrinal rumblings.

That’s a lot to pack into a single name without overemphasising just one dimension of his responsibilities, as, say, Pope Calvin might. This would be an olive branch to Presbyterians, but it is bound to telegraph confusion about the soundness of his doctrine. Pope Hans would delight the vaticanistas, but there is an anti-pope with that name in Tübingen, in Germany, feliciter regnante, and the mail might go astray. 

Even if the new Pope plays it safe and selects the name of one of his 265 predecessors, he will have scores of names. But two stand out: Gregory and Leo.

The last Gregory, Gregory XVI, reigned from 1831 to 1846, an era of revolution for which he was not well-equipped. Nowadays he is mocked as the Pope who banned railways and gas lighting. A 17th Gregory would put an end to that. The most famous of the Gregorys were Popes who succeeded in reforming the Church in very turbulent times.

The first one, Gregory the Great (590-604), was a man of great holiness and an impressive administrator. He sent missionaries to pagan England, reformed the liturgy and introduced Gregorian chant. Gregory VII (1073-1085) asserted the independence of the Papacy against violent and rapacious kings, reformed the administration of the Church and enforced mandatory celibacy for the clergy.

The first Leo (440-461) is also called “the Great”. He asserted the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, settled crucial doctrinal disputes, and persuaded Attila the Hun not to sack Rome. Leo XIII (1878-1903) was the first of the modern Popes. He fostered piety in an age of rationalism but he was also an intellectual who breathed new life into Christian philosophy. He was the first Pope to issue influential encyclicals on social and economic policy.

The smart money belongs on Gregory or Leo. And of the two, Leo has the Biblical edge. “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered,” says the book of Revelation.

So here are MercatorNet’s hot tips:

Benedict 5000/1
Elvis 500/1
Aiden 400/1
Jackson 400/1
Calvin 300/1
Hans 300/1
Marianus 100/1
Patrick 60/1
Pius 40/1
John Paul 20/1
Paul 16/1
Innocent 12/1
John 12/1
Gregory 6/1
Leo 4/1

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.