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BY Jimmy Akin
Many years ago, when I was first starting to work in apologetics, I was reading an article by an Italian journalist—I think it may have been Andrea Tornielli—who referred in passing to “Pope Wojtyla,” meaning John Paul II.
“How disrespectful!” I thought.
At the time, I was only used to referring to popes by their regnal name (the one they choose when they become pope) either preceded by the word “Pope” (i.e., “Pope John Paul”) or followed by their regnal number (i.e., “John Paul II”) or both (i.e., “Pope John Paul II”).
And that was only if there was a name involved at all. More generic designations were also possible—like “the holy father” or simply “the pope”—but not other combinations involving names.
It still strikes me as being overly familiar with the high pontiff to just haul off and refer simply to “John Paul” or “Benedict” without at least first getting in a reference to “John Paul II” or “Pope Benedict.”
It can be a little tempting to ask, “So . . . how long have you and his holiness been on a first name basis?”
After the first reference in an article has paid homage to the pope’s position, though, I fully understand using just the regnal name to avoid undue repetition.
But to reach back before his papacy and grab a name that he went by before he acquired the authority of the successor of Peter—as in “Pope Wojtyla”—that seemed to me to be the height of impertinence.
I imagine it strikes a lot of Americans that way when they first encounter the usage, because here in America we don’t commonly refer to popes this way.
But in Europe they do. It’s much more common there to use the “Pope (Last Name)” construction, and it isn’t considered disrespectful.
An interesting proof of that is that if you read enough Vatican documents, you find that this usage isn’t confined to the European press. The Holy See itself uses it. In fact, the popes themselves do.
For example, in an address Pope Benedict gave last May on the 50th anniversary of John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, the current holy father said:
Still valid, too, in addition, are the instructions that Pope Roncalli offered on a legitimate pluralism among Catholics in the implementation of the social doctrine. He wrote, in fact, that in this context “differences of opinion in the application of principles can sometimes arise even among sincere Catholics. When this happens, they should be careful not to lose their respect and esteem for each other. Instead, they should strive to find points of agreement for effective and quick action, and not wear themselves out in interminable arguments, and, under pretext of the better or the best, omit to do the good that is possible and therefore obligatory” (n. 238).
Pope Benedict obviously isn’t dissing his predecessor here. His reference to “Pope Roncalli” isn’t intended to be disrespectful. If anything, it’s meant to be affectionate.
And this is not the only such reference you’ll find in Vatican documents.
If you do some quick Googling of vatican.va (using the “site:vatican.va” tag on Google), you find multiple results of this kind for recent popes:
“Pope Roncalli” (John XXIII) . . . 3 results
“Pope Montini” (Paul VI) . . . 19 results
“Pope Luciani” (John Paul I) . . . 8 results
“Pope Wojtyla” (John Paul II) . . . 6 results
The dataset is too small to draw any conclusions about trends regarding the usage (and too small a set of the Vatican’s documents are as yet online), but it does show that this is an established usage—blessed by Vatican and even papal practice—even if it’s somewhat unfamiliar to American ears.
What are your thoughts?