What’s in a name?


Universe column for May 1st 2005

by David Alton

So what’s in a name? Why has Cardinal Ratzinger chosen to be known as Benedict XVI?

When, as young adults, we are confirmed, we are each able to choose a new name. Sometimes the bishop will ask why a particular saint’s  name has been chosen. Last year, my daughter chose as her confirmation name my late mother’s Christian name.  This not only placed a little bridge across the generations but through St. Bridget it provided a link with my mother’s Irish roots.

Pope’s, of course, get to do it all again. Their choice of the papal nomen signifies particular  qualities  with which they would like to identify. Some have speculated that Pope Benedict wanted to identify with Benedict XV – who was a peacemaker during World War One – striving unsuccessfully to end the carnage and slaughter of millions of young men.  He may well want to be a peace-maker but maybe we need to dig deeper than this.

Surely in  choosing  Benedict as his name  the new Pope is identifying with one of the great saints.

St. Benedict, an Italian, was the founder of a religious order which throughout the post-Roman period cultivated learning and nurtured European civilisation.  Without him, much that we treasure today in our contemporary society would have been lost into the oblivion of the Dark Ages. He believed in the unity of secular and religious life.  That is why he Benedict is rightly the patron saint of Europe .

Benedict was also the spiritual father to the religious communities that to this day still offer education, hospitality, and a place of refuge to troubled souls. Over the centuries, the Benedictine Rule and way of life has produced many great spiritual leaders, including our own much loved late Cardinal, Basil Hume.

Although the Rule of St. Benedict is 1500 years old it remains contemporary. In a world of stress and burn out the desire to encounter the sacred and spiritual has never been greater.

Pope John Paul II, in the recently published Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections, said that St. Benedict “is rightly called the father and teacher of Europe .”  Surely the new Pope has chosen this name because he wants to be both of those things: a spiritual father and a teacher.

Pope Benedict XVI comes to office with a very impressive reputation as a towering intellectual figure. In addition to The Catechism of the Catholic Church he is the author of almost twenty books.  Through his writing and teachings he will challenge the secularised nature of Europe today. In Truth And Tolerance, he asks the simple question “what if it is true that salvation is to be found through Jesus Christ?”  In The Spirit of The Liturgy he describes the liturgy as “the great prayer of the church” and in God Is Near Us he quotes the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that “we ought to discover a new reverence for the Eucharistic mystery.”

During his first Mass as Pope – in as he said, appropriately  this Year of the Eucharist –  he returned to that theme and asked us to deepen the liturgy and to make our Church a place where the spiritually thirsty could encounter Jesus Christ, whom he also described as an intimate friend.

It is hard not to have been  impressed by the sensitivity that the then Cardinal Ratzinger displayed in celebrating the Requiem Mass for John Paul II. He showed clarity and conviction during the Novendiales Mass on the night before the Conclave – stating that  “truth and love must be inseparable”.  He emphasised personal humility as he greeted the crowds from St. Peter’s balcony he pledged to work for social development and ecumenism during the first pontifical Mass.

There have been a few predictably churlish and embittered denunciations of the new Pope but most of the faithful see why the cardinals have elected him. The world needs a spiritual father and a teacher and that is what they have given us. The world needs another Benedict and that is what we have got.

What’s in a name? Everything you need to know.