Today is Pope Francis’s birthday. And something people forget about birthdays is that it’s not only the day you were born, but more often than not the day when you are given a name.
I have been known by many names in my life. I was born Ann Mary Monique Sandil Ocampo. Later on, I insisted on being called by my middle name so I wouldn’t be addressed as “Mary Ann.” In high school, I was called “Mi-chan” by my best friend, “Lady” by my guy friends, and “DJ Dizzy” whenever I was on the morning announcements. But I also dealt with my fair share of name calling. A high school bully called me “Momo” and “Snaggletooth.” One classmate in college flirted with me a lot and called me “babe” or “baby” at least once. An absent minded professor kept calling me “Michelle.” Someone who I thought was friend wanted me to change my name altogether so that I could start a new life with them.
But now that I’m out of college, I am back to being regular Monique Ocampo. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Why is the name we call ourselves by so important?
According to Aquinas, the name of a thing says something about the thing itself. It’s like how St. Peter the Apostle’s name meant “rock” as an analogy to Peter being the foundation of the church as well as to Peter’s headstrong personality. Names can be meaningful by the definition behind the name or they can honor a person by that same name.
When you change your name, you change a part of yourself. Some people change their names to take on a new identity, either to stand out or blend in or mark a significant change in their lives. Sometimes name changes are part of a coming of age ritual such as the sacrament of Confirmation where most young adults choose a Confirmation name or when religious sisters change their name as they take on their final vows.
So why do popes change their names? It started with Pope John II in 533, who originally had the name Mercurius. He felt it inappropriate for a pope to have the name of a Roman god. Nowadays, popes have changed their names to honor their predecessors, a family member, or a saint they have a strong devotion to. In the case of Pope Francis, he chose the name after a friend in the conclave told him to remember the poor when he takes on the papacy. And even though I’ve called popes by nicknames (JP2 and Papa B), I haven’t found the right nickname for Pope Francis. But maybe for now I don’t need one. For now, just calling him “Pope Francis” is enough.