Naming the Pope

Mar 13th 2013

As I write this, a papal conclave in Rome is charged with the profound duty of naming a new pope. And once they do name him, he will have to name himself.

For more than 1000 years, newly elected popes have adopted a regnal name to represent their papacy. In one sense, this is the most tradition-bound of naming decisions. The name must be a deep and pure reflection of Catholic history and values. Most often, the choice is to honor a previous pope as a holy role model. The four most common papal names, John, Benedict, Gregory and Clement, have accounted for 55 of the 129 popes since re-naming became standard a millennium ago.

Yet from another perspective, the pope's name choice might be seen as the ultimate example of the modern naming experience. Rather than choosing a name based on personal, private-facing meanings, like honoring a grandparent, today's parents increasingly focus on public-facing impact. And no name is under more pressure and scrutiny as a signal to the public than the name of a new pope.

Since each pope's name points to specific individuals who preceded him, the name choice is taken as a symbol of the kind of leadership he hopes to bring to the church. For instance, when Cardinal Albino Luciani took the unconventional step of naming himself after both of his immediate papal predecessors as John Paul I, it was taken as a strong symbol of continuity. In particular, he was believed to be signalling that he would stay the course with the controversial reforms of Vatican II.

Observers are already speculating on what name-signal the next pope will send. The choice to adopt the name Leo XIV, for instance, could represent a commitment to social justice on the model of Leo XIII. That association has made Leo the favorite of bettors placing wagers on the name choice.

It's a stark illustration of the power of names: the ability to express an entire philosophy of faith and leadership in a single word. I'd be intrigued to see our secular leaders take on the renaming challenge. In fact, let me propose it to the moderators of the next round of U.S. presidential debates. Ask the candidates, "If you had to assign yourself a new presidental name, what would it be?"


Update: Just hours after I published this, the cardinals sent up white smoke and the world met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis. The name Francis resonates deeply in Catholicism; variations of it are borne by dozens of saints. Yet no pope has ever been named Francis, making it a dramatic choice.

Much will be written about this name in the days to come, but the early reaction is that the new pope has managed to send two very different messages at once. The image of St. Francis of Assisi makes the name Francis a strong symbol of poverty, humility, simplicity, and stewardship of nature. Yet the decision to step outside of the papal lineage and link himself directly to figures like Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier suggests a leader who isn't afraid to break new ground and shake up "business as usual." In other words, the name manages to present the pontiff and his church as both thoroughly modest and thoroughly bold.


March 13, 2013 1:04 PM

I don't know if I'd bet on social justice being a high priority for the new pope. The task of the next pope is to salvage something of the Church in Europe and guard it against the allure of evangelical protestantism in the developing world. For that reason, I'm betting on a counter-reformation name — probably Pius.

March 13, 2013 3:34 PM

 Sigh... The new pope's name is Francesco, like my son.

NOT happy!!

March 13, 2013 4:48 PM

He's the first Jesuit to become pope, right? In that light, Francis as a first-ever papal name becomes an obvious choice, I think -- although it's the sort of "obvious" that doesn't help with the guessing games beforehand, because the clue is in his identity, something that's unknown until the white smoke appears.

I wonder if this'll help me finally sort out the genders of Francis versus Frances!

March 13, 2013 5:44 PM

I'm interested that he chose Francis and not Ignatius, which would have been more obvious for a Jesuit. He's devoted to the poor though, which is very Franciscan. Very cool that he chose something totally new!

March 13, 2013 8:35 PM

I gave my thoughts on the name choice in the forum section, but it should be remembered that Francis Xavier was the very first (of many to follow) Jesuit missionary, and his evangelizing journeys took him to India, Indonesia, Japan, and China.  I have not read the speech, but I am told that the new pope's first speech of substance focused on evangelism--and Francis Xavier is the the first Jesuit evangelist to Asia (along with Africa and Latin America the areas of present-day Catholic missionary work).  Given the pope's customary non-luxurious lifestyle, I would say that the name Francis is a two-fer and provides a lot of information about the new pope's priorities and state of mind.

March 13, 2013 9:26 PM

It should also be remembered that St. Francis of Assisi was told by God to "rebuild my Church," which he took to mean the dilapidated building of San Damiano, before he realized that God meant the entire Church. Pope Francis was also a super humble man who shunned some of the luxuries commonly given to archbishops and cardinals - lived in a flat and took the public transportation to work instead of living in the nice residence and using the car/limo service, cooked his own meals instead of having a chef, etc. One of the best pictures published of him is from Holy Thursay a few years ago. Traditionally, during the Holy Thursday Mass, the bishop/cardinal will wash the feet of priests and/or deacons in imitation of Christ at the Last Supper. Well, he went to an AIDS hospice and washed and kissed the feet of several of the patients there. How awesome is that?

March 13, 2013 10:27 PM

On the Francis versus Ignatius question, I think the similarity to the Latin word for "fire" was probably a vote against the latter. Besides, as others have noted, Francis is a twofer, with Assisi as well as Xavier springing immediately to mind.

March 14, 2013 6:15 AM

@HungarianNameGeek: the way to remember Francis vs. Frances is "his and hers".  His=Francis.  Hers=Frances - the names match the vowels in his/hers.

March 14, 2013 10:34 AM

I wonder if this will make the names Francis, Frances, and Francesca rise for newborns.

March 19, 2013 1:54 PM

I was thrilled with the name choice - and so not a Catholic. I had considered the name issue. Boniface and Leo I thought might be trending, and Pius as a plausible conservative choice. Personally, I would have liked a Felix. But Francis is quite exciting!