Saturday, March 16, 2013

Still Life With Robin: A Pope By Any Other Name

Pope Hilarius

by Peggy Robin

Francis I. An excellent name, honoring the most popular of all the saints of the Catholic Church (identified as such by New York Times religion columnist Timothy Egan - see While I applaud Cardinal Bergoglio for the bold move of becoming the first of the Francises (if indeed there will be more to come), I could not help but feel a twinge of regret after I perused the long list of past papal names --94 different ones among the 266 who have been pope-- and saw the many varied, colorful, and evocative choices that had been passed over.

Let me say before I get going on the list below that none of what follows is in any way a commentary on religion or Catholicism in particular. My particular fixation is on the mental connections and associations we have with names -- all the cultural baggage, including jokes and general silliness, that names accumulate over time and through changing trends. I give you Felix as the prime example. Had the present pope chosen to become Felix VI, it could not help but call to mind (at least for those of us old enough to have watched black & white cartoons on TV) the winking image of Felix the Cat. And hear the lyrics playing in our brains: Felix the Cat/The wonderful wonderful cat/Whenever he gets in a fix/He reaches into his bag of tricks. Fortunately for them, the previous five Felixes (Felix I 269-274; Felix II 355-365; Felix III 483-492; Felix IV 526-530; and Felix V 1439-1449) did not have to contend with animated namesakes.

One pertinent historical note: Until the mid-Fifth Century, popes for the most part reigned with their original names. From the mid 400s until 1555 some popes assumed new names, while others kept their birth names. Since May 1555, when Gian Pietro Carafa took on the title Paul IV, every pope has adopted a "regnal name" upon ascending to the throne of St. Peter. (As an interesting aside, no other pope has chosen the name Peter, and it seems clear that the intention is to keep that name unique to the founder of the papacy. For a brief and charming history of papal names, see

Now to the names that might have been (listed in historical order):

Linus. Who could form an mental image of a Pope Linus without imagining a man with a soft security blanket held against one ear? As long as there are newspapers that print "Classic Peanuts" (well, that may not be much longer), there's slim chance of any pope naming himself Linus II.

Telephorus. This would be an awesomely great name for a pope who can teleport across the Bosphorus.

Hyginus. A fine name for a pope who intends clean house.

Eleutherius. A fitting name for the cardinal of the Bahamas, perhaps. For a pope, not so much.

Fabian. Brings to mind a pope who could do lead vocals with some swinging early 60s-style doo-wop backup singers.

Cornelius. Just the pope to revive Soul Train.

Sylvester. Like Felix, another tricky cat -- but this one is known for his incompetence against a cute little canary bird. Not the best papal name, under the circumstances.

Damasus. The trouble with this name is that it looks too much like Damascus with a typo. It turns out to be Latin for "tamer" -- as in "lion tamer," not as in "more tame." There have been two "tamer" popes, the first from 366-384 and the second for about three weeks in 1048.

Celestine. There have been six Celestines, and while this may have been a masculine name in the 5th through 13th centuries when it was in use, these days it most assuredly has a feminine ring to it. And what it calls to mind specifically is Celeste, the Queen of the Elephants in the Babar books.

Hilarius. Yes, it means more or less what it sounds like, although the Latin is usually translated as "cheerful" rather than "uproariously funny." A variant, Hilary, now far more often a girl's name than a boy's name, is the modern equivalent.

Simplicius. Simplicity used to be taken as one of the highest virtues, but I'm afraid these days most people would be offended if called "simple."

Severinus. A good name for a pope only if you want to suggest that he was once a professor at Hogwarts, from Slytherin House.

Conon. The Barbarian? Yes, I realize that the Cimmarian warrior is spelled Conan, but back in the 680s when Conon was pope, spelling was always more flexible.

Sisinnius. From sound alone, it's suggestive of both "sissy" and sinning. Never having heard it before, I looked it up and found it was the name of a pope of about three week's duration, and he was born in Syria. Don't let anyone tell you that all popes until now have been European!

Valentine. I think it's a sweetheart of a name, but I doubt we'll see its use for a pope in our lifetime. Valentine was Pope in 827 for about a month and a half.

Adrian. You know you can't stop yourself from thinking it: "Yo, Adrian!" If we ever have another Pope Adrian, it will be Adrian VII.

Marinus. It means sailor. Too much opportunity for Popeye/Pope-eye the Sailor jokes. There have been two popes named Marinus, one who was pope from 882-884 and the other from 942-946.

Lando. Yes, Star Wars fans, just like "Lando Calrissian." Pope for about six months in 913-914. (Are you sensing a pattern here? That the popes with the strangest names lived for the shortest period of time?)

Gelasius. Makes you think of Italian ice cream, doesn't it? Not a bad name for a man in a white suit. But it's actually Greek for "laughter." It was the name of a pope of North African origin, from 492-496. And yes, it was his birth name, so it's unlikely ever to be repeated in a future pope. I can tell you one thing about a baby named "laughter," though: His parents must have been very happy on the day he was born.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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