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What's in a (Papal) Name?

Jaclyn LoRaso

A new pope means a new regnal name–the formal moniker used by popes and monarchs during their reigns. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio won the papal conclave's recent vote for pope, he also announced his new name: Francis, or Francesco in Latin.

And like any expectant parent, popes weigh the meaning of a new name before settling on a choice that fits the best. The name Francis has never before been chosen by a pope, and is a deliberate nod to Saint Francis of Assisi, a Catholic friar born in the thirteenth century.

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Francis was sainted in 1228 and is the patron saint of animals. He was also deeply dedicated to the poor and was known for his humility and frugal lifestyle—it has been speculated that by choosing this name, Pope Francis may be indicating what he will be focusing on during his reign. The fact that is an entirely new papal name has suggested to some a new direction for the church.

Another early saint with the same name was Francis Xavier, a world-traveling Spaniard and one of Christianity’s great missionaries. He was a founding figure of the Jesuit order, of which the new pope is a member.

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The tradition of popes choosing a regnal name began in the sixth century with Pope John II. Born Mercurius, after the Roman god Mercury, he came to the conclusion that a name hailing from Roman mythology was inappropriate for a leader of Christianity, so he chose a more biblically appropriate moniker.

The four most common papal names, John, Benedict, Gregory and Clement, have accounted for 55 of the 129 popes since re-naming became standard a millennium ago, according to Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard. And when The Economist compiled data on betting odds of the most likely names for the new pope, Francis did not even make the list. Instead, the most popular names were Leo (42.1 percent) and Gregory (16.7 percent).

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Francis is Latin for “from France.” While not wildly popular, the name still seems to be much more common in the United States than Benedict—the chosen monkier of the previous pope. Francis peaked in popularity in the United States in 1910, when it ranked 31st for boys. As of 2011, the name ranked No. 618 in names for baby boys. Meanwhile, Francisco (a variant of Francesco) ranked 211 in 2011.

Benedict has not ranked in the top 1000 names for the past 13 years.

What's your favorite papal name? Leave a comment and let us know.