What does “pope” literally mean? And how does a pope choose his name?

As you read about the Pope’s visit to Britain, you may begin to wonder about his name. After all, what does “pope” actually mean? And how does a pope get his name after he assumes the papacy?

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, and thereby the world leader of the Catholic Church. The word comes from the Latin papa, which means “father.” He is also the head of the Vatican, the tiny, sovereign, city-state within Rome. The Catholic Church believes that he is the Apostle Peter’s successor and may speak infallibly, when he chooses to speak ex cathedra, which literally means “from the chair of St. Peter.”

(What do “mosque,” “temple,” and “church” literally mean? Find the answer, here.)

The Pope cruises around in the Popemobile, an open-topped car. Unlike the centuries-old history of the word “pope,” the word “Popemobile” was first used in 1979. His tall hat is called a mitre, the large band of cloth that he wears around his neck is a pallium.

Within the Sistine Chapel, in a meeting called the “conclave,” the cardinal electors choose a new Pope. The meeting is called a conclave – a word that in Latin means “a room which may be locked” — because the cardinals are “locked in” to this important task. It takes a two-thirds majority to elect a Pope.

Then comes the exciting part.

After the ballots are counted, they are burned in a stove in the Sistine Chapel. The smoke escapes through a small chimney. If the vote has been unsuccessful the ballots are burned with a special chemical compound to make fumata nera, or black smoke.

But if fumata bianca rises from the chimney, the Catholic world can be reassured that they have a new leader.

The new pope is expected to choose and announce his regnal, or reign name, which is the formal name used during his time as pope. Monarchs practice a similar tradition when they inherit a throne. There are no particular rules regarding what name a pope may choose, but generally their decision is viewed as a reflection of practices or tendencies they favor.


  1. jemo -  July 2, 2016 - 8:49 am

    The the one of greatest commandment Do not make any image or graving made either to heaven or earth to represent God . wat is the image in roman catholic church used for

    • Verónica O -  August 14, 2016 - 5:28 pm

      The claim that Catholics adore images is false. We only adore God. Any image, just like a photo nowadays, or statues in parks or museums, is a reminder or a visual aid that helps the mind elevate its thoughts to prayer through the saintly example of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or any human being that is an inspiration to other Christians.
      Yo do have pictures and photos of your family, but surely you don’t believe your beloved one IS that image, right? Then, you do not adore the picture, but keep it because it reminds you of how much you love and admire that person.
      It is absolutely absurd to even imagine that a Catholic would adore images, and it is very unfair and sad to see that other Christian brethren are taught Catholics actually do so. We only adore God and the Holy Trinity. The Virgin deserves veneration just like the saints.

  2. Berean -  November 26, 2013 - 6:21 pm


    Do you sleep well knowing that all possible objections have been refuted? You don’t even need to read them. Just knowing they are there apparently keeps you confident that you are following the truth. I say that because I seriously doubt you have read and scrutinized it all.

    Let me ask, as I’ve asked catholics before- maybe you’re different- is it even possible that there is a slight chance that the catholic church is wrong on even just one of it’s dogmas? Is it even a possibility?

    • Salem -  February 22, 2015 - 9:47 pm

      Well @berean I’m going to answer your question… No… No catholic dogma is false every Catholic Dogma is infallible and handed down from god to the Church the pillar of truth. Let’s take for example our lord jesus christ… Who is he? Man? God?divine? What? Tell me? No eno could tell before the church that he was both man and God holding two natures only heretics refused to submit to such dogma… An other dogma the trinity can you find trinity in the bible? No…. No one did. But the church through sacred scripture and infallible teaching discovered it… Now many of you commented about calling a priest father… Because jesus said that we should call no man father but our father who is in heaven… But is you’re talking it literally therefore you should not call even your own father father because jesus said call no man father…. No man… And that would also mean call no man teacher… So the teacher at school should not be called teacher it doesn’t make any sense jesus christ wanted us to have one father and one teacher from whom the church receive it’s teaching from.

      • Chuck -  October 12, 2015 - 5:17 am

        When is a Pope going to address the issue of Priests continuing to rape little boys? It has been covered up for centuries and yet NO Pope has EVER spoken publically about it. This horrid practice would stop immediately if the Pope would decree that no diocese would ever again shift Priests from one to another to shelter them from public accusation. And that all Priests should immediately turn themselves in if they had committed such a crime. And if they didn’t they would be immediately be excommunicated.

        Now that’s a Pope I might have some respect for but not the fools I’ve seen in my lifetime.

        Don’t you Catholics get tired of seeing the donations you make to the Church being used to pay hush money to the child victims of Priest rape?

  3. ella -  August 26, 2013 - 4:28 pm

    If you still want some more intelligent people that can explain you about the Catholic faith; Go to you tube and start watching Fr. Robert Barron.

    You can also check out Dr. Peter Kreeft. If you are a Bible fanatic, go and browse the ex-protestant Dr. Scott Hahn. I will not refer you to ignorant people because there are prominent speakers and scholars in the Catholic Church that you can ever imagine.

    Now decide for yourself how Catholic Faith (which some of you think as “idiotic) can attract and produce highly intellectual people as such. If you are smarter than them, then I challenge you to read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Think about Pascal, Descartes, Galileo, Mendel, Erasmus, Bach, Mozart, need more names? They are the prominent world changers but never failed to be faithful Catholics.

    Don’t get stuck on the dark age people. Even Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail to destroy His Church that he left to Peter the Rock and succeeded by unbroken lines of popes. His promise remains to this day because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
    Mt.16:17-20; 1Tim3:15

    • rev no name of the church with no name -  March 11, 2015 - 3:42 am

      the catholic church caused the dark ages learn yer history if it hadnt been for the church we would be an other few hundred years ahead i supose you believe the world is flat and the universe turns round the earth religion is a form of control threw fear of the unknown the only true relgion is maths

  4. ella -  August 26, 2013 - 4:08 pm

    To all non-Catholics and ex-catholics here that mocks the belief and the authority of the Church. I don’t blame you for your comments and harsh words against Catholicism. You are simply ignorant of what the Catholic faith and tradition is all about. I assure you that all your questions, doubts, and criticisms have been refuted and answered by the Church and apologists (if you even know that word) with its 2000 years of existence. Just because you’ve been an ex-Catholic or even non-believers who heard about the practices of some Catholics, does not mean you have the full knowledge of what we believe. Your ignorance is not new and you are part of the millions who misunderstood what Catholicism is all about as Bishop Fulton said (you can search him in you tube). Anyway, please do yourselves a favor…we are now in the age of internet. There is nothing secret about the Catholic Church. Instead of browsing the anti-Catholic website, why don’t you start browsing the Vatican.VA. If that seems too hard for you to decipher, go to EWTN.Com. or to Marcus Grodi’s show about the anti-catholics who finally saw the truth. These are the legit sites. Dropping your comments based on rumors and fallen-away catholics just make you all ignoramus. Harsh but truth is always hard to swallow!

    • rev no name of the church with no name -  March 11, 2015 - 3:49 am

      look at the borgia the catholic church is corupt always has been and always will be because it is controled by power hungry people

    • The Professor -  September 30, 2015 - 7:56 am

      If you knew anything at all about the true history of the church of Rome, you would not be in denial about their wickedness.
      They changed the Sabbath, incorporated pagan feasts into their calendar. A calendar designed to contradict the original one provided by God. Every holiday is a pagan holy day, it is blasphemy according to scripture to keep them.
      The reason the church murdered people by burning them at the stake for translating the Latin Vulgate is because the Latin Vulgate is at least partially a false translation in itself. True copies of scripture proves this to be true, this is the age of the internet, anyone can find PDFs of these and cross-analyze them.
      Time and time again the Catholic church has taken something very wicked and merged it with biblical overtones in order to try to incorporate other peoples into their own cult.
      The Lord specifically tells everyone not to call any man “father” for there is but one Father in Heaven. “Pope” basically means “father” if you examine the root word…his very name causes people to blaspheme when they speak it.
      Scripture trumps doctrine, I don’t care what your apologists and priests have to say, what does God have to say? What does scripture say?
      Idol statues, rituals with bones, praying to dead people, it’s all occult.
      It’s no secret that the Vatican actively covers for pedophile priests and bishops…the same could be said for certain members of the royal family, but that’s another topic.
      The Truth is only hard to swallow if you refuse to chew on it.

    • Chuck -  October 12, 2015 - 5:04 am

      No man should be between himself and God. The evil of the many, many Popes, the constant changing of the religious dogma to keep up with the times, the hate shown by the CC to non Catholics and the continued “second class” status offered to women is enough prof to me that the Catholic version of Christianity is not genuine and is an evil perversion of what was taught by Jesus. The Bible was written by a bunch of old women hating men and for anyone to believe the nonsensical stories in it (that can be found practically word for word in earlier religions) is foolish. God exists but is so removed from what we are we can never hope to understand what he is but that doesn’t mean I have to make up fairy tales to pacify myself.

  5. bible believer -  March 1, 2013 - 3:29 am

    Dear X Cat.
    Yes the bible does indead say to call no man
    Father…but this has never stopped catholics.
    Catholics put their religion above the word of
    God, even though the Bible says that Jesus is
    The WORD. I HAVE always chosen to never refer
    To a priest as father, most of the catholics I know
    Regularly use Gods name in vain, and they use Jesus
    Name as a slang word, thus perhaps u can see why
    I have no respect for theirreligion

  6. LaDawn -  February 28, 2013 - 7:12 am

    4. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.
    5. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
    1. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ

    The Catholic Church believes that he is the Apostle Peter’s successor and may speak infallibly.

    Only God is in infallibly

  7. Ex Catholic -  February 14, 2011 - 12:15 am

    Dosent it say in the bible that no one shall call any one father but the father himself (god) and no one shall shake the hand of a priest calling him father ever because there is only one father (god) and God did not give any one his position not even the pope so whats up with the whole pope thing any ways……kind of idiotic isn’t it?

  8. lewis -  October 16, 2010 - 6:46 am

    the pope is ausome

  9. KM -  September 24, 2010 - 12:39 pm


    Wow…I thought the Catholic faith taught understanding and acceptance. First, how do you know Poppins isn’t Catholic? And second, and perhaps more importantly, how does the fact that one is or is not Catholic make his or her opinion on the issue ‘moot’? Are tolerance and providing the opportunity for dissent and discussion not some of the signs of an enlightened and democratic society? Apparently not in your world. To switch gears a little to your holy book to prove a point…many of the stars of the bible are also important in other religions, namely Judaism, Islam, and Baha’i. So…would you say that those who believe in these other religions are less qualified to make a comment on the bible? I think not. For the record, I was born and baptised Catholic, stopped going to church around 8 years of age because something about it just didn’t feel right. Years later, I decided to do some research into all major religions, and now happily straddle the fence between agnosticism and atheism, picking and choosing elements of each religion that I feel are reflective of an upstanding humanity. So, I am technically qualified to comment on how the Pope is selected, right? Well then, I think locking that many men in a room for days on end is ridiculous and an unnecessary amount of hoopla for a position that doesn’t actually carry much power. Kind of like the president or prime minister…how many decisions do you think he actually makes? He or she doesn’t have the time to research everything…they rely on ADVISORS. Just like your beloved pope and similar to the way the bible was written – by committee.

  10. Jack -  September 24, 2010 - 2:15 am

    It’s a little silly to suggest that the popes are “locked in to their task.” The Latin roots mean “with a key,” suggesting that conclaves are the most private of affairs, and that it’s really others who are “locked out” of the proceedings.

  11. Pam -  September 21, 2010 - 1:15 am

    @ Steve Using “their” is not grammatically incorrect. “Their” is not plural. “Their” means belonging to themselves. Yes, Popes are all males and using “his” would be more suffice but “their” was not used incorrectly.

  12. Greg -  September 20, 2010 - 1:23 pm

    What’s a Pope?

  13. #1 Skillet fan -  September 20, 2010 - 10:40 am

    as sure as the pope is catholic, St. Patrick was not (he died around 461 A.D., before the Roman {catholic} church even came about). And by the way, he wasn’t Irish- he was Scottish

  14. Guest -  September 20, 2010 - 9:45 am

    @ Raf : “So the Pope isn’t always infallible, but can activate “infallibility mode” at will? That’s a pretty cool magical power.” Great comment, lol.

  15. Nya!!!!!!!!! -  September 18, 2010 - 2:01 am

    Rome, Norse, and the Catholic–mythologies are chronological so far, then , wait, it goes back from the nihilism and the Protestant, so where I stand?

    Anyway, what about the myth we are living today or just leave it a mystique as he wishes.

  16. Connie -  September 18, 2010 - 1:39 am

    Did you know that there was a female pope, around 800 or 900c? Her name was Joan, read the book Pope Joan and find out more!

  17. POPE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  September 18, 2010 - 12:40 am

    [...] the Pope Catholic? — Does a bear Scat in the woods? — What about Saint Patrick? — Was his Sainthood [...]

  18. Idealist -  September 18, 2010 - 12:32 am

    The Pope was set up to extend Rome’s power when the western Roman empire adopted Christianity.

    I think part of the problem with all miracles is that they are only miracles because of our own inherent arrogance that somehow events beyond our control happen happen because of our will (or God’s) when in reality everything is simply the result of a sequence of events. they are miracles only we are ignorant of those events.

    Case in point, Kubla Khan’s invasion failed because he sailed into a Typhoon. Nothing miraculous at all. Nothing in history has ever been inexplicable. We are just ignorant of the explanation.

  19. compatible substance --quark? -  September 17, 2010 - 10:43 pm

    If only he knew!

  20. compatible substance --quark? -  September 17, 2010 - 10:38 pm

    The one named after God being gracious has his sleight of hands in snicking out of the modern/post-modern age. And he has his agenda and so is mine as with calling.

  21. Michael -  September 17, 2010 - 7:26 pm

    @shivaji – Oh, the irony. The word you want is spelled “speech.”

    @mark V – Epic Logic Fail!
    Your definition requires “human control of supernatural agencies or forces of nature.” When the Pope speaks ex cathedra (as others have pointed out, this has happened only about twice in 2,000 years), HE is NOT controlling anything. He is being used as an instrument to communicate a message. To see that as magic is essentially the same as believing a carrier pigeon is magic because it has a little capsule on it’s leg containing a slip of paper with a message on it.

    That you do not believe the Pope was speaking God’s will during those two times over two millennia implies that you believe yourself to be infallible on that topic. That seems awfully arrogant of you, especially when juxtaposed with the rather vast spans of time that separate the few incidents of Papal infallibility. What gives you this miraculous insight?

    @Poppins – God does choose.

    There’s a joke I like: A flood was coming and residents were told to evacuate. When the sheriff came by and offered a man a ride, he said, “No. I have faith. God will save me.” The water rose covering the first floor. He was standing on his balcony when a boat came by and offered to take him to safety. The man said, “No. I have faith. God will save me.” The water rose and he was sitting on the peak of his roof when a helicopter hovered overhead, dropped a basket, and told him to climb in. “No!” he yelled. “I have faith! God will save me!” The water rose and he drowned. Reaching heaven, he asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God answered, “I tried. I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”

    Similarly, God does choose the new Pope. The conclave of cardinals is simply the method He uses. Just because something seems ordinary to you doesn’t mean it isn’t miraculous. A apparently-ordinary and not at all uncommon typhoon saved Japan from certain defeat at the hands of Kubla Khan’s invasion fleet. The Japanese believed it was a miraculous, divine event. It would be the height of hubris for me to gainsay that assessment. Similarly, it is the height of hubris – and tremendous disrespect – for you to mock the conclave of cardinals. Besides, you’re not Catholic; your opinion on the topic is moot.

  22. The JAM -  September 17, 2010 - 6:24 pm

    “by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter”

    I’m sorry, but where in the Bible does it say that Kepa Bar Jonah did that?

    And who did Komrade Woyctyla confess to? Himself?

  23. rabbit -  September 17, 2010 - 5:58 pm

    Good eye, Steve. The editor must have changed that (the grammatical mistake) pretty soon afterward because it now reads “. . . how does a pope get his name . . .”. That sure is a bad mistake for someone to make in a dictionary.com blog!

  24. Hern Quin -  September 17, 2010 - 5:33 pm

    What you may not know about Cardinal Joseph Ratzenberger’s regnal name is that it appeared in his Quantum Destiny codes. In April 2005; I forecast on my local radio show, the new Pope would adopt Benedict XVI. Pretty simple computation, if you know what you are looking for.

  25. shivaji -  September 17, 2010 - 4:24 pm

    The pope is only infallible if only his speach writer is infallible!

  26. Poppins -  September 17, 2010 - 3:47 pm

    Choosing an “infallible speaker” of religious matters via 2/3 majority vote does not sit right with me. Why doesn’t God choose?

  27. mark V -  September 17, 2010 - 3:30 pm

    2: the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.

    He puts on his robe and hat, stands at an altar, calls out across the temple, and then we all obey what he just said.
    Im sorry, God can clearly be considered a supernatural agency, OR a force of nature, so that is PRECISELY a magic power.

  28. Monty -  September 17, 2010 - 3:11 pm

    Pope may speak “Infallibly”? HA! All Popes have been hard to understand!

  29. Tim -  September 17, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    “Magical power”? That’s highly disrespectful. One should not view infallibility as a human ‘power’ but as God’s protection of religious truth.

    I believe only twice has a pope spoken ex cathedra, once on the issue of St. Mary’s immaculate conception. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of infallibility has been hijacked by many as attributing sinlessness to the pope. That’s certainly not the case. Why would John Paul II go to confession once a week if he was perfect?

  30. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  September 17, 2010 - 2:45 pm

    P.S. The question should be asked, how did ‘P’ (contented, father, sire) become doubled, ‘PP’ (papa) and ‘BB’ (abba)?


  31. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  September 17, 2010 - 2:39 pm

    If a Pope is a papa,
    Howcome a Mome is a blockhead?


  32. Cat -  September 17, 2010 - 2:36 pm

    The pope is only considered infallible in regards to religious matters.

  33. Serge -  September 17, 2010 - 2:33 pm

    Lols, Saf wins the thread.

  34. Patrick -  September 17, 2010 - 2:32 pm

    The Pope is the world leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is not the leader of either the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches.

  35. Matt D -  September 17, 2010 - 2:31 pm

    According to the Vatican Council, Sess. IV

    “We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.”

    So I guess it Ex Cathedra doesn’t mean literally from the chair, but when he makes a certain type of official announcement, it has to be regarded as the truth by all catholics.

    That really does strike me as a strange position. I guess catholics are supposed to reject independence and humbly just accept authority, and that this is regarded as a Christian attitude in some way. Maybe. I have no idea. But how can statements by a man seriously be regarded as infallible?

  36. Saf -  September 17, 2010 - 2:10 pm

    So the Pope isn’t always infallible, but can activate “infallibility mode” at will? That’s a pretty cool magical power.

  37. jennifer -  September 17, 2010 - 1:59 pm

    I think the title should say: And how does a pope choose “his” name?
    Since there is no such thing as a female Pope.

  38. Steve -  September 17, 2010 - 1:58 pm

    It’s both silly and grammatically incorrect to ask “how does a pope choose their name”. It should be “his name”, both because pope is singular (meaning “their” is wrong) and because all popes must be male (meaning “his or her” is wrong).


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