new Roman Catholic pope selects his own name. Based on previous popes, here is a list of all 81 possible names for Pope Francis’s successor furnished with the proper available Roman numeral. From the top I went backwards in time, which should also very roughly parallel the descending probability of a particular name being chosen.
Even some names toward the top of this list can probably be ruled out. For example, Pius XIII will likely remain vacant for now because of the cloud over Pius XII who many people argue was far more accommodating and coöperative toward Hitler than was strictly necessary (though there are very strong contrary views). On a more sanguine note it’s perhaps equally unlikely the next pope will style himself John XXIV for fear of usurping the memory of the still very popular John XXIII. Sixtus VI might be something of a tongue-twister for English speakers, though the Spanish would have an easier time saying “Sixto Sexto.”
The College of Cardinals likely keeps close track of these names, at least for the sake of historical continuity. But there hasn’t always been smooth sailing among them. Since Felix II, who reigned during Pope Liberius’s banishment (355-358), was declared a pretender or “antipope,” lists usually skip from Felix I to Felix III. Consequently you’ll often see notations like Felix III (II) which might be interpreted as “Felix, numerically the third but rightfully the second.”
Next, Sylvester III, who set up shop during Benedict IX’s banishment of 1045 — more about him below — and Sylvester IV (1105-1111) were both declared antipopes. Thus the next Sylvester could be either Sylvester V (III), or, ignoring the two mountebanks entirely, just plain Sylvester III again. And finally, due to yet another antipope muddle, there was no Pope John XX. When physician Pedro Giuliano took the keys in 1276 he instead declared himself John XXI.
The longest run of a single ordinal kicked off in 1241 with Celestine IV and continued with Innocent IV, Alexander IV, Urban IV and finally Clement IV until 1268.
Two centuries earlier, Benedict IX had pulled a multiple Grover Cleveland in having been pope three (four? five?) separate times. He was first installed as a teenager by his father, Alberic III, Count of Tusculum, in 1032. An angry mob deposed Benedict in 1036 but within weeks Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II put him back on the throne. Ousted again in 1045 in favor of Pope Sylvester III, he gathered an army over several months, retook the papacy, and declared Sylvester an antipope. A while later he decided to marry, so he sold his office to his godfather who became Gregory VI.
But when Benedict’s girl ditched him he returned, deposed his godfather (who doesn’t appear to have gotten a refund), and held the papacy once more until July 1046.
At that time Holy Roman Emperor Henry III called the Council of Sutri to sort out the mess and installed Clement II.
When Clement conveniently died a year later from ingesting “lead sugar” (lead acetate)1, Benedict returned and reinstated himself yet again.
The following July a party supporting Poppo of Brixon deposed Benedict, for the last and final time, and Poppo — whose mother must have been psychic to name him that — became Damasus II.
John Paul III
Stephen X (XI)
Deusdedit II (Adeodatus III)
Felix V (IV)
Anacletus II (Cletus II)
You’ll notice there were many uniquely named pontiffs2, especially in the bottom half of this list before the tenth century or so when they tended to go by their birth names. Pope John II was the first to depart from this and reject his pagan birth name, Mercury, in 533.
Pope Francis is the first to break in a new name since Pope Lando in the tenth century. There’s certainly nothing to stop his successor from ignoring the 81 choices above and using, say, his own birth name. That hasn’t happened, though, since Marcellus II (b. Marcello Cervini degli Spannochi) in 1555.
1. This was verified by modern toxicological examinations of his remains. Lead sugar had been used since ancient times to sweeten wine, candy, and other foodstuffs when safer alternatives such as honey were unavailable. It’s not clear if Clement was deliberately poisoned or simply ingested too much of it on his own.
2. Information regarding the first few centuries of this history is scant and unreliable, so it’s widely understood that many of the earliest names may well be incorrect or even fictitious.