What’s in a name: How popes choose their papal name

On 13 March, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church. Upon stepping into the role of Pope, Bergoglio took the papal name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis isn’t the only Pope to have shed his baptismal name in favour of adopting a new name for his papacy. Far from it.

The first Pope to change his name did so in 533. At the time of his birth, Pope John II was christened with the name Mercurius after the Roman deity Mercury. Feeling that carrying the name of a Roman god would be inappropriate for the leader of the Catholic Church, Mercurious became Pope John II.

Since the time of Pope John II, some popes have chosen to change their name while others have kept their given name

In fact, it has now been quite common for new popes to shed their name upon election. Once the ballots have been counted and a consensus has been reached, the question is asked: “By which name will you be known?”

Choosing a papal name

When the new Pope announces the name by which he will be known, he may, or may not explain the reason for choosing the name he has decided upon.

In the case of Pope John Paul I, the first to have chosen two papal names, he explained he intended his papacy to live up to the legacy of both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI - who led the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).

When Pope John Paul I passed away suddenly, after serving only 33 days as the Pope, he was succeeded by Pope John Paul II. He chose the same name as his predecessor in an effort to maintain consistency and to uphold the wishes of the first Pope John Paul.

By any other name: should the Pope keep his baptismal name?

While choosing a papal name has become customary, there are those who feel that it would be a welcome change if future popes decided to retain their baptismal names.

In suggesting that future popes should be known by their baptismal names, many point to a notable quote by St Augustine in which he addresses the importance of baptismal names over holy order:

He said: “I am fearful of what I am for you, but I draw strength from what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, and with you I am a Christian. The former designates an office received, the latter the foundation of salvation.”

It remains to be seen if choosing a baptisimal name becomes the order of the day. The last Pope to have maintained his given name was Pope Marcellus II, who was elected Pope in 1555.