During the election of a new pope, after all the ballots are counted and a cardinal would be chosen to be the next pope, he would be asked the question, “By what name shall you be called?”
This question is a big one, though not all popes struggle with it. As a matter of fact, for most of the histories, this was never even a question to be asked.
Until during the 6th century, when the new popes started keeping their baptismal name as their “papal” name.
Then, they began an “informal” tradition of choosing a new name. This method, was however, inconsistent for many centuries and it didn’t become a more solidified tradition until Pope Paul IV in 1555.
Technically, there are still no rules that guide the decision making process of the new pope even currently. The newly elected bishops of Rome are always free to choose any name and could still keep their baptismal name if they wished.
Above it all, it is still a name they choose and is not something that is given to them from someone else.
During the past century, so many popes chose their name so as to honor one of their predecessors.
For instance, Pope John Paul I chose his double name so as to honor both Paul VI and John XXIII. Then John Paul II also, chose his name to honor John Paul I.
In the other hand, Pope Benedict XVI chose his name in order to honor both Pope Benedict XV and St. Benedict of Nursia.
The symbolic meaning of the names represented the tone of his papacy, as he said in a general audience.
“Filled with sentiments of joy and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I recall Pope Benedict XV, a courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through difficult times of war. Therefore, in his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples”.
He went further in his speech, saying “In addition to that, I also recall Saint Benedict of Nursia, a co-patron of Europe, whose life manifested the Christian roots of Europe. I seek him to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life: May Christ Jesus always take first place in our thoughts and actions!
Pope Francis became the first to break recent traditions to choose an entirely new name that has never been used before by a pope.
And this was the first time this has happened since the 10th century. He made it known that the name came to him when a cardinal embraced him immediately after his election.
He explained the scenario saying, “[The cardinal embraced me and said], ‘Don’t forget the poor’ and that hit me … the poor … instantly, I thought of St Francis of Assisi. And Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected the creation”.