I admit I’m biased. I’m a Stephen and ever since I was a little boy and learned that the man who becomes pope forgoes his birth name for one entirely new — as a sign of leaving his life behind as did the Apostles and giving it entirely to the Lord, as Jesus renamed Simon to Peter, the Rock upon which He built His Church) — I’ve wanted a pope named Stephen. It was only a boy’s pride, to be sure, and Stephen’s Biblical meaning of “Crowned One” is fairly befitting of the Supreme Pontiff.
We haven’t had a Pope Stephen since the 11th century. That’s confounding since Saint Stephen, the first martyr and the patron saint of deacons, is held in such high regard among the Litany of the Saints.
The last Pope Stephen was Stephen X (also referred to as Stephen IX because a priest elected pope centuries prior took the name Stephen but died before he could be consecrated a bishop, which is required to assume the papal office). Stephen X lived from c. 1020–1058 and was Pope from August 3, 1057 to March 29, 1058, and was widely praised for his reforms.
My first chance at a pope taking the name Stephen was at the death of Paul VI, the only pope of my memory at that point. I anxiously asked my parents if they thought there was a chance the new pope would take the name. I got the enthusiastic response that parents give children who show great interest in such weighty matters — sentiments of we hope so and that would be so nice. Alas, he chose the first double name, John Paul I. When he suddenly died, I knew the new pope would not have much choice but to take the same name.
With John Paul The Great’s long papacy, I never thought much about a new pope ort what his name might be. Nor did I expect his successor — figuring it would be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — to inclined toward Stephen. But times have changed in the eight short years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. It’s time for a Stephen. Here’s why.
Choosing a papal name is no esoteric exercise. Joseph Ratzinger chose Benedict for a reason — to signal his intention to re-evangelize Western Europe (and the world) as Saint Benedict instituted Catholicism in Germany and the order he founded spread it around Europe and, eventually, the world. Benedict’s New Evangelization is proof of his intention and the fruit is growing. Now, the Church faces challenges unique to this age (or at least era). We know them and the list need not be enumerated nor debated here. What we do know is that the next pontiff will need all the strength, courage and wisdom that he can summon from the blessings of the Holy Spirit to confront and conquer these challenges. It wouldn’t hurt to have as his patron and intercessor Saint Stephen.
Choosing that name would inspire new vocations and boldly convey to the world The Truth of The Faith in the face of secularism’s twin permeating evils — the culture of death and the dictatorship of relativism — just as Stephen faced those who hated Christ in the first century. For it is written in chapters 6-8 in Acts of the Apostles:
The whole assembly approved of this proposal and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. …
Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people. Then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia.
They found they could not stand up against him because of his wisdom, and the Spirit that prompted what he said. So they procured some men to say, ‘We heard him using blasphemous language against Moses and against God.’
Having turned the people against him as well as the elders and scribes, they took Stephen by surprise, and arrested him and brought him before the Sanhedrin. There they put up false witnesses to say, ‘This man is always making speeches against this Holy Place and the Law. We have heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, is going to destroy this Place and alter the traditions that Moses handed down to us.”
The members of the Sanhedrin all looked intently at Stephen, and his face appeared to them like the face of an angel. …
(Stephen said), “Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Upright One, and now you have become his betrayers, his murderers. You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. In spite of being given the Law through angels, you have not kept it.”
They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him. But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
“Look! I can see heaven thrown open,” he said, “and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”
All the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they made a concerted rush at him, thrust him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul.
As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he knelt down and said aloud, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And with these words he fell asleep.
It’s time for a Pope Stephen — a name of strength, dignity, intellect, leadership and courage — because of the times. The new Holy Father will need will need the courage to speak to the evils of secularism, despite the great power it wields — not physical death, but its power to ridicule The Faith and poison multitudinous souls in retaliation (or instigation). But not only to speak, but to speak forcefully and irrefutably, and with courage. As John Paul The Great urged us — Do not be afraid. Take courage. Be stout hearted. It was what a brother cardinal reminded Cardinal Ratzinger as he began to fear his inevitable election in 2005.
News reports indicate the College of Cardinals, during the days of its congregation before the start of the conclave, basically mapped out the characteristics it want sto see in the next pope. Where better to find them than the story of Stephen in Acts? And what better name?