Why isn’t the pope called Francis I?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: I was raised as a Roman Catholic and remember always seeing a number after the Pope’s name. I was taught the number indicated how many Popes had previously used the name. In reading the news stories about the recent synod, I notice that the Pope is simply referred to as Pope Francis. Is that a new change?

A: No, not at all. You are correct that many popes have numbers after their name to indicate how many of their predecessors have used that name before them. For example, Pope Benedict XVI was the 16th pope to use the name Benedict.

However, the custom is to start using numbers after the names of popes only when it is necessary in order to keep track and distinguish them from their same-named predecessors. Since Pope Francis is the first (and so far only) Pope to have taken the name Francis, there is no need for a numeral after his name. But if we were to ever have a Pope Francis II in the future, then we would retroactively refer to our current Pope Francis as Francis I.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].