Why do Popes Change Their Names?

This morning I was so excited to begin teaching a class for the Rome Experience at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) in Rome. All of the seminarians are top-shelf Catholics and gentlemen. It’s an honor to be here with them.

In this morning’s second session on “The Theology of Rome,” (which is covered in book form here), we studied the second chapter of Daniel and explored the role of the unhewn stone that destroys the pagan sovereign kingdom’s over Israel – climaxing in the Roman Empire. The Stone is Christ, but it is instrumentally Saint Peter (Kepha in Aramaic or Petros in Greek) when we appreciate the Roman context of the prophecy.

One of the students raised an excellent question: “Why do Popes choose new names?” Here’s where the tradition got started:

Pope Mercury? Try again…Pope John II

Johannes_IIOn January 2 AD 533, a priest of Rome named Mercurius was elected as the Pope. He felt, however, that it would be unbecoming of the Holy See to have a Pope named after a Roman god “Mercury.” It would sound strange to Roman ears. Think of saying something like “Pope Jupiter” or “Pope Neptune.” So this priest opted not to be called “Pope Mercury” and instead changed his name when he became Pope.

Not all Popes after Mercury chose new names. However, those with extremely non-Roman names (think Germanic Popes) often chose Roman names assimilate into their Roman context. Pope Adalbert just sounds wrong.

Mercury chose the name “John” to honor his papal predecessor Pope John I who died in AD 526. Incidentally, Pope Saint John I was the first Pope to visit Constantinople while serving as Pope.

Pope John II (Mercury) is notable in Church History because obtained from the Emperor Justinian his orthodox profession of the Catholic Faith and his repudiation of the Monophysite heresy.

  • Fun Fact #1: The last pope to use his personal baptismal name was Pope Marcellus II in 1555.
    Fun Fact #2: There hadn’t been a new Papal name since AD 913 until Pope Francis! Before Pope Francis, Popes always chose names from the recycled list of previous Papal names. I supposed that “John Paul” is technically a new name, but it’s also a compound name of two previously uses Papal names.

Question: What Papal name would you choose for the next Pope and why? Which would I choose? I love Pope Leo XIII (by the way, will somebody please canonize him!), so I’d like the next Pope to be Pope Leo XIV. Plus, Leo is a very regal name. So…what named would you like to see for the next Holy Father. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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