The Omen

What's in a name? A hell of a lot, if you're the new pope.

The last German pope, Adrian VI, was the first since Mercurius not to choose a new name as pope and the last to be elected by the College of Cardinals in his absence (Adrian was then serving as head inquisitor in Spain). A few months after his arrival in Rome, he was nearly killed when a crack in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—the room in which papal elections are held—opened up. A chunk of the ceiling came crashing down, narrowly missing the pontiff and instantly killing one of his trusted Swiss Guards. What Adrian saw when the dust cleared was a fault line running along the length of the ceiling, which, in a terrifying symbolic gesture, ran between the Finger of God and the finger of Adam in Michelangelo's celebrated fresco panel. Fighting corruption in the Catholic Church, the Turks on Rhodes, the Lutherans in Germany, and the plague in Rome, Adrian died barely a year later. Benedict XVI faces the modern versions of these older problems, but his experience of Rome and of the Sistine Chapel, where he was elected, will hopefully prove a richer—and less perilous—one.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.

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