With word that Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of this month, speculation began immediately about who will succeed him.
And, of course, with a new pope comes a new name. The Jumping Polar Bear blog has helpfully listed the names of all 266 men who have served as Bishop of Rome, beginning with St. Peter.
Of late, there hasn’t been much variety, with just five different names, or variations thereof, over the past 167 years.
There have been two Benedicts, the current pontiff (2005-2013) and Benedict XV (1914-22); one John (John XXIII, 1958-1963); one Paul (Paul VI, 1963-1978) two John Pauls (JP I, 1978; and JP II, 1978-2005); four with the name of Pius (Pius IX, 1846-1878; Pius X, 1903-1914; Pius XI, 1922-1939; and Pius XII, 1939-58); and one Leo (Leo XIII, 1878-1903).
That’s in stark contrast to the Church’s early years when there were myriad names, many of which are unrecognizable today. That’s because the early popes simply kept their first name.
However, by the sixth century some pontiffs began adopting a new name upon their accession to the papacy. By the 10th century, this had become the custom and every pope since the 16th century has done so.
While at this point it’s impossible to say what name of the next pope will say, it’s probably safe to rule out a few previous names:
- Agapetus (Pope from 946-55): Sounds too much like “Apetus,” which would actually be kind of cool.
- Conon (686-87): Only if Schwarzenegger gets the nod.
- Eleutherius (175-189): If no one can properly pronounce the name, it ain’t happening.
- Eutychian, (275-283): See above.
- Formosus (891-96): The Chinese could be expected to lodge a protest.
- Honorius (several, most recent 1285-87): Not exactly the name one associates with dynamic leader. Also, might prove confusing French speakers, who don’t pronounce the “h” sound.
- Hyginus (136-140): May have been popular in the 2nd century AD, but anything that sounds like “hygiene” isn’t going to make the cut today.
- Innocent (several, most recently 1691-1700): Just asking for trouble.
- Lando (913-14): Sounds like a Spanish motorcycle.
- Siricius (384-99): Too easy to confuse with the word “circus.”
- Simplicius (468-83): A comedian’s dream.
- Sisinnius (708): No pope should have a name that includes “sin.”
- Sixtus (several, most recent 1585-90): The last pope to take the name Sixtus was Sixtus V. That means the next would be designated Sixtus VI. That’s a lot of sixes and could incite the fundamentalists, even if they don’t recognize the pope or the Catholic Church.
- Urban (several, mostly recently 1623-44): Wouldn’t sit well with country folks.
“In the early church, most popes kept their own names, which accounts for such archaic appellations as Adeodatus, Formosus, Hyginus and Anastasius Bibliothecarius,” according to NBC News.
The custom of popes choosing a new name began in 533 with the election of Mercurius. Mercurius had been named after the Roman god Mercury, and he figured it probably wouldn’t do for a pontiff to have the name of a pagan god. Mercurius chose for his name John, and ruled from 533-535 as John II.
The last pope to use his baptismal name was Marcellus II in 1555. He reigned for less than a year.
Choosing a new name as pontiff did not become a tradition until 996, when Bruno, the first German pope, became known as Gregory V, NBC added.
Over the centuries, the most popular name has been John, with 23 popes having taken that name. Next are Gregory and Benedict (16 each), and Leo (13).