Yesterday the current Pope, Benedict XV, announced his resignation in a move that shocked many. Why so? Because he’s the first pope in about 600 years to make such a move: saying that he no longer has the ‘strength of mind and body’ needed to carry on his duties (he was the oldest man to become pope since Clement XII in the 18th century).
It’s fun to note that Benedict XVI is currently 85, being born in April 1927, whilst the Queen happens to be almost a year older than him, being born in the previous April.
But that’s an aside, because what I really want to talk about is papal names. You see, Benedict XVI wasn’t always called Benedict – indeed, he’s only gone by the name Benedict for just under 8 years, being previously known by the name Josef.
The reason? Upon accession to the papacy it has become a custom to take a papal name, with every pope since the 16th century doing so.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. Back in the early days of the Church, the bishops of Rome simply continued to use their birth names after their election. The custom of changing one’s name came circa 500 AD with the election of Pope John II, who was born with the name Mercurius. He deemed that being named after the Roman god Mercury would be a tad bit inappropriate, thus he took the name John as his papal name.
To this day, the last pope to use his birth name as pope was Marcellus II back in the 16th century.
What guides the choice of papal name is purely down to the new pope himself, and in times gone by popes have chosen names inspired by predecessors, mentors or even family members.
A notable example of this is John Paul II, who took the name of his two most immediate predecessors (John XXIII and Paul VI, respectively) as his papal name. His successor, John Paul II, chose his papal name for him, as he wished to continue the work of his predecessor who died only 33 days into his papacy.
John Paul I is also notable for being the first to be known by a double name, and he also has the distinction of being the first pope to use a ‘new’ name not previously used before since Pope Lando back in the 10th century.
So that’s the tale behind the papal names, but which names are most popularly used? It’s an interesting Top 10: