Pope Names: Francis I Goes For Originality; How Often Do New Pontiffs Choose Unique Papal Names?

  • Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio Argentina 3
    Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Reuters
  • Pope Francis I
    Pope Francis I Reuters
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With the election of Pope Francis I as head of the Roman Catholic Church, a number of firsts were made – the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit pope.

When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name, he also joined a list of 44 popes to choose a name not taken by a previous pontiff.

Since the church’s first pope, St. Peter, to today, the papal names that have been taken only once are largely of Greek and Latin origin. They range from Pope Agatho, who headed the church in the late seventh century, to Pope Zosimus, who reigned for 10 months in the early fifth century.   

Before Pope Francis I, the last pope to choose an original name was Pope John Paul I, who died only 33 days after being elected in August 1978.

Not only did John Paul I’s successor not choose an original name, but Cardinal Karol Wojtyla picked John Paul II as his papal name (Wojtyla was close friends with his predecessor.)

Thirty-seven names have been chosen by pontiffs more than once, with John appearing the most frequently at 23 times. John is followed by Gregory and Benedict at 16 apiece.

Why did Bergoglio choose Francis as his papal name?

"The new pope is sending a signal that this will not be business as usual," said CNN Vatican expert John Allen.

He said Bergoglio’s papal name is connected with “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church.”

The name Francis in Roman Catholicism is most strongly associated with St. Francis of Assisi, who came from a wealthy family but shunned material possessions after visiting Rome and followed a life of poverty.

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker also speculated that by choosing Francis as his papal name, Bergoglio was showing that the church may be at a turning point.

“If [Francis] is a symbol that will have to be proven out, the selection of a pope from Latin America is a more immediate one. It affirms the church’s transformation, and may give it better footing in the world, if not a grasp of it,” she wrote.

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