September 23, 2020

A Pope named Mercury?

Everyone knows today the ecclesiastical tradition by which Peter’s successors change their name to the one they wish to adopt during their pontificate. The cardinal dean always asks, after the conclave, how each one wants to be called: “Quomodo vis vocari?” This fact generates enormous expectation among the faithful and it is usual for the Pope-elect to explain his reasons. For example, John Paul I wanted to honor his two predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI, who had named him cardinal and bishop respectively, and was thus the first to use a compound name. But this tradition has not always existed within the Church, but begins precisely after the election of our protagonist: John II (470-535), whose pontificate was reduced to just two years, from 533 to 535. Until then the Popes, except for a single exception that we will see later, had limited themselves to using their first name followed by the corresponding numeral. What then prompted this Pope to change his name in the first third of the sixth century? Although his hidden intention might be to ultimately honor his predecessor Juan I, the truth is that the modification occurred in his specific case for reasons of even greater substance.

Too pagan

So let’s notice that his parents called him Mercurius at birth. A name, the truth, too pagan for a whole priest of Christ. Not surprisingly, Mercury is the Roman god of merchants and merchandise, the son of Jupiter, god of war. Its own mythological meaning or interpretation made it even less appropriate for a cleric. The reader will understand that it would have been somewhat strange to refer to a Pope by the name of Mercury I. Well, that is what he must have thought too. Before being elected, he remained for a time in the Church of Saint Clement, on Mount Coelius, where today historical documents that refer to him as “Johannes II, surnamed Mercurius” are preserved.

Let us note that since John II there was still some Pope who did not change his name, although the custom eventually became a respected tradition that, as we say, dates back to today. If we review the extensive list of pontiffs, we find that some names are repeated repeatedly. Without counting the anti-popes, Juan appears twenty-three times throughout history, Gregorio, sixteen, like Benedict, Clemente appears fourteen, Inocencio and León, thirteen, and Pius up to 12 times. But there are also other names that have not enjoyed such popularity, such as Zósimo, Zacarías and Ceferino. Despite the fact that in almost all historical documents John II is recognized as the first Pope to change his name, it is not accurate to affirm that if we stick to the same Gospels. Was it not Jesus Christ Himself who said to Simon Bar-Jonah: “From now on you are Peter and on this stone I will build my Church”? Here, then, is the first name change in the History of the Popes. In this way, although for totally different reasons, John II followed the same pattern as the first pope in history whose name, curiously, has not been repeated later by any other pontiff. Thus no one claimed to equate himself, not even in the way he was called, to Saint Peter, the first Pope. John II had to face another of the great evils that plagued the Church: simony. The term refers to the serious sin of buying and selling ecclesiastical titles and is named after the Samaritan leader Simón El Mago, a contemporary of Christ, the first to propose such an unworthy business.

Worrying scandal

After the death of Pope Boniface II, simony emerged when influencing the election of the new pontiff. The scandal reached such great and worrying proportions that it was denounced before the Roman Senate, prohibiting by decree the purchase and sale of ecclesiastical titles for this purpose. It was possibly the last decree of the Senate, which dated from the time of Diocletian and disappeared just in the year 532 when Boniface II surrendered his soul to the Most High. Juan II asked Atalarico, king of the Ostrogoths, to recognize the validity of the Roman decree and although the monarch did, he did not hesitate to reserve the right to ratify the papal election. In 535 Justinian’s war broke out against the Ostrogoths, but John II died on May 8 of the same year and did not get to know the victory of Byzantium. Avatars of fate.

Firm hand

There is no doubt that John II tried by all means to bring order to the bosom of the Catholic Church. On the one hand, he had to face the resurgence of the formula of Pope Hormisdas (450-523), according to which “one of the Trinity has been crucified” and sought to reconcile several heretical sects after the Acacian schism of 481. But Hormisdas He rejected it as ambiguous in 519. Despite this, the Emperor Justinian again defended the formula, causing controversy, which forced John II to reiterate his sentence. At the same time, stories about the corruption of Bishop Contumeliosus, who was accused of adultery, among other serious sins, spread from the Bishopric of Riez in Provence. With a heavy hand John II deposed him on the spot and, with the participation of the Bishop of Arles, confined him to a monastery to fulfill his due penance.


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