April 10, 2011
Why Do Popes Change Their Name?
Within the Roman Catholic Church there is a long history and strong tradition of name changing associated with the Papal election. To this day, it is not mandatory to change one's name after being declared Pope, but it is very traditional. Typically, Popes select their favorite saint, or two, in the case of John Paul. Name changing can be traced to Saint Peter, the very first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Peter’s given name was Symeon or Simon. As the story goes, this is the name he went by until Jesus changed it to Peter, which means rock in Greek.
It is Pope John II that is often credited with reviving the ancient tradition of name changing. The given name of Pope John II, prior to his election in January 533, was Mercurius. He was named after the Roman god Mercury. Name changing did not catch really on until Pope Sergius IV in 1009. Ironically, Pope Sergius’s real name was Peter. In the last thousand years, only Pope Adrian VI and Pope Marcellus II have decided to keep their birth name after becoming Pope.
But was it really Pope John II that really revived this tradition? A great many of the early Popes, well into the Middle Ages, had Greek names, like Peter. Many scholars believe it is unlikely that all of these men were Greek in nationality. It is more likely that these men followed in Saint Peter’s footsteps, taking a Greek name following the Papal election. The Liber Pontificalis (literally Latin for “The Book of the Pontiffs”), which is a compilation of early Papal biographies, states that several of the early Popes were Roman or Italian. Pope Anicetus was Syrian.
Chronicle of the Popes by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart