'Love your act, your Holiness, but that name...!'

In these New Age days, it would look a bit odd to have a Pope named after a sign of the Zodiac

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Sportsmen are usually happy with the names they were born with, even if they are called Wayne Rooney. Politicians don't change their names to get into office. Musicians and artists stick to the name Mummy and Daddy chose for them. A few writers adopt noms-de-plume, though not many. So who do change their names? That's right! Actors! Actors change their names! They are the only branch of showbiz given to adopting stage names, are they not?

Sportsmen are usually happy with the names they were born with, even if they are called Wayne Rooney. Politicians don't change their names to get into office. Musicians and artists stick to the name Mummy and Daddy chose for them. A few writers adopt noms-de-plume, though not many. So who do change their names? That's right! Actors! Actors change their names! They are the only branch of showbiz given to adopting stage names, are they not?

No, they are not.

Because popes do it as well.

Popes and actors. in fact, it's worse for popes.

Many actors change their names.

But all popes have to change their names.

"We like your act, Karol," they must have said to the last Pope. "This mix of humanity and cruelty is great! Soft line on human nature, hard line on contraception and Aids! Good pope, bad pope! It'll go down a storm! But the name, Karol, the name! Nobody is going to turn out to see someone called Pope Karol Wojtyla. Half the world is going to think you're a girl! We're gonna have to think up a stage name for you."

And so he became Pope John Paul II, and he was the biggest hit the Vatican had had for years, so they must have got something right. And whoever emerges victorious from the present conclave must know, inter alia, that whatever he was called when he went in as a cardinal, he won't be called that when he comes out as a pope.

Bit like being married, really.

You go in called Mrs Parker-Bowles, and you come out Mrs Cornwall.

I expect that's what they said to her beforehand.

"We like your act, Camilla," they must have said. "This mix of remoteness and ordinariness is great! And the public is so relieved that someone has agreed to look after Charles and keep him out of trouble! But the name, Camilla, the name! 'Camilla Parker-Bowles' sounds like a complicated piece of office equipment. So we're going to have to think up a stage name for you...."

Have they decided what it is yet? Hard to make out.

From one point of view, the new Pope has got it easy. His choice of name is limited to a very few candidates. He is obliged to take the name of a previous pope. He could be Pius or Leo or Clement or John or Innocent ... or ... well, that's about it. (Personally, I think Leo is unlikely. In these New Age days, it would look a bit odd to have a Pope named after a sign of the Zodiac.)

John Paul I was a bit of a maverick where this was concerned. There had never been a pope called John Paul before, nor had there ever been a Pope with two names. The previous two had been called John, and Paul, yes, but nobody had ever gone for two names together.

The theory is that he was trying to please the liberals (with John) and the others (with Paul), but what nobody is very sure about is why he called himself John Paul I. Yes, he actually insisted on having the "First" as part of his name.

That's showbiz for you.

And then, having grabbed himself this great name, John Paul I died within a month of becoming Pope.

Well, that's showbiz too.

My theory, for what it's worth, is that John Paul I was desperate to get a new name because his real name was Albino Luciano. How cruel to call a child "Albino", which means the same in Italian as it does in English!

"You have been very brave, Albino," they must have said to him, chuckling a bit, secretly. "All your life you have suffered from this stupid name, and now at last we have taken pity on you and made you Pope so you can get rid of it. So what would you like to be called instead? John Paul I? Isn't that just a bit reminiscent of the famous atheist, Jean Paul Sartre? No? Maybe not. But why John Paul the First? You think there may be other John Pauls coming up? You do? Well, you should know. You're infallible now, after all...."

Tomorrow: More about name-changing, or, what is Alphonso d'Abruzzo better known as?

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