Only One: Pope Formosus and Other Papal Names Used Only Once

Most people are aware that the popularity of the name Adolf plummeted after World War II. In the wake of the Holocaust, it became synonymous with evil, not just in Germany, but worldwide. There are also Popes’ names that have been avoided because of scandal.

Sometimes the Pope in question was scandalous or became involved in a scandal, whether through his own fault or not. Perhaps the most notorious case is one where the Pope was already deceased. This was the case of Pope Formosus, a 9th century pope, whose body was exhumed and dressed in papal garments and put on trial.

The trial was conducted by then Pope Stephen VI (sometimes referred to as the VII) in January 897. A deacon was appointed to speak for the corpse of Formosus and the dead pope was found guilty of various charges. The corpse was thereafter stripped of its sacred vestments, and the blessing fingers of the corpse’s right hand were cut off.

After a hasty reburial, the corpse was exhumed a second time and thrown in the Tiber River. All ordinations performed by Formosus were annulled. A public outcry over this insane event, which became known as the Cadaver Synod, led to the imprisonment of Stephen VI and he was later strangled to death in prison. Pope Formosus’ position was restored, but the name Formosus was never taken by another pope. Undoubtedly, no one wanted to be reminded of this terrible affair. However, the name Stephen did not become identified with Stephen VI and would be used by 3 more Roman Catholic popes.

Before Formosus, there were many popes whose names have never been used again. Many were canonized saints. In the first and second centuries, they were all saints.

  • St. Peter (32-67)
  • St. Linus (67-76)
  • St. Anacletus (Cletus) (76-88)
  • St. Evaristus (97-105)
  • St. Telesphorus (125-136)
  • St. Hyginus (136-140)
  • St. Anicetus (155-166)
  • St. Soter (166-175)
  • St. Eleutherius (175-189)
  • St. Zephyrinus (199-217)
  • St. Pontain (230-35)
  • St. Anterus (235-36)
  • St. Fabian (236-50)
  • St. Cornelius (251-53)
  • St. Dionysius (260-268)
  • St. Eutychian (275-283)
  • St. Caius (283-296)
  • St. Marcellinus (296-304)
  • St. Eusebius (309 or 310)
  • St. Miltiades (311-14)
  • St. Marcus (336)
  • Liberius (352-66)
  • St. Siricius (384-99)
  • St. Zosimus (417-18)
  • St. Hilarius (461-68)
  • St. Simplicius (468-83)
  • St. Symmachus (498-514)
  • St. Hormisdas (514-23)
  • St. Silverius (536-37)
  • Vigilius (537-55)
  • Sabinian (604-606)
  • Severinus (640)
  • Donus (676-78)
  • St. Agatho (678-81)
  • Conon (686-87)
  • Sisinnius (708)
  • Constantine (708-15)
  • Valentine (827)

Some of these names are still in use the way they are, like Peter, Linus, Constantine, Cornelius, Fabian, Marcus and Valentine. There are modern variants of others, such as Silverio for Silverius.

You’ll hear of few others with the names Telesphorus or Sisinnius besides the two popes who bore those names. Even so, their names are rendered differently in various languages. Telesphorus in French is Télesphore, and there is a town in the province of Quebec, Canada named Saint-Télesphore after that pope. Sissinius in Italian is, as you might expect, Sissinio.

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