You Gotta Know These Popes
- Peter (c. 1 – c. 68, pope c. 30 – c. 68) was, in Catholic belief, the first Bishop of Rome and thus the first pope. Peter was the leader of the twelve apostles; Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter and declared him the “rock [on which] I will build my church.” Jesus also bestowed upon him the keys to the kingdom of Heaven and the power to “bind” and “loose” in Heaven and on Earth. He was crucified upside-down by Emperor Nero and is the namesake of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
- Gregory I or Gregory the Great (c. 540–604, pope 590–604) was one of the “Latin Fathers” of the church and is considered the founder of the medieval papacy. After remarking that some English boys at a slave market were “not Angles, but angels,” he sent Augustine of Canterbury on a mission to Christianize southern Britain. His writings include a Commentary on Job and Pastoral Care, and he is known as the Dialogist in Eastern traditions. He is credited with introducing Gregorian chant, named in his honor, into the Catholic rite.
- Urban II (c. 1035–1099, pope 1088–1099) ordered the First Crusade. Ambassadors from Byzantine emperor Alexius Komnenos came to the 1095 Council of Piacenza requesting help in reclaiming the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks. Urban II responded by calling the Council of Clermont, where he urged a crusade with the phrase “Deus Vult,” or “God wills it.” The subsequent First Crusade lasted from 1096 to 1099.
- Innocent III (c. 1160–1216, pope 1198–1216) ordered the disastrous Fourth Crusade and excommunicated Venetian crusaders who changed course from Jerusalem to sack Constantinople. He also initiated the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France. Innocent III convened the Fourth Lateran Council, which defined the dogma of transubstantiation and required Muslims and Jews to wear identifying clothing. In 1209, he excommunicated King John for refusing to recognize the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Alexander VI (1431–1503, pope 1492–1503) was a prominent member of the Borgia family and the father of Cesare and Lucrezia. He excommunicated the Florentine friar Savonarola in 1498. With his son Cesare, he was accused of inviting prostitutes into the Papal Palace to host the scandalous “Banquet of the Chestnuts.” In international affairs, Alexander VI assigned New World territory to Spain in the bull Inter Caetera, which became the basis for the Treaty of Tordesillas.
- Julius II (1443–1513; pope 1503–1513) was nicknamed the “Warrior Pope” for his military ambition in expanding the Papal States. He joined the League of Cambrai to resist Venetian expansion in northern Italy. He also instituted the Swiss Guard and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo created a number of notable sculptures as part of a plan for Julius II’s tomb, including the Rebellious Slave, Dying Slave, and a “Horned Moses” based on a mistranslation of the Vulgate.
- Leo X (1475–1521; pope 1513–1521) was a son of Lorenzo de Medici whose papacy included the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. He revived the unpopular sale of indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Martin Luther responded by publishing his 95 Theses, which Leo denounced in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. At his coronation, Leo was given a white elephant named Hanno by Manuel I of Portugal; the animal was buried beneath the Vatican after its death.
- Pius IX (1792–1878; pope 1846–1878) was the longest-reigning pope in history. He reigned during Italian unification and remained a “prisoner in the Vatican” after the capture of Rome led to the annexation of the Papal States. Afterward, he rejected a Law of Guarantees that sought to define the rights of the Church within the Kingdom of Italy. Pius defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the decree Ineffabilis Deus and established papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. He released a controversial list of 80 heresies in his Syllabus of Errors.
- John Paul II (1920–2005; pope 1978–2005) was from Poland, making him the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. In 1981, he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of the Turkish terrorist group Grey Wolves; he survived and forgave Agca while visiting him in prison. John Paul II defended the sanctity of life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae and declared evolution to be compatible with Catholic theology. He denounced Marxist “liberation theology” in Latin America and may have inspired the Solidarity movement during a 1979 visit to his home country.
- Francis (1936–present, pope 2013–present) served as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires before ascending to the papacy upon the resignation of Benedict XVI. He is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, and the first pope from outside of Europe since Gregory III in the 8th century. When asked in 2013 for his view on gay clergy members, he responded “Who am I to judge?”. He also had a historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in Havana in 2016, and the two issued a joint declaration denouncing the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
- Leo I (c. 400–461, pope 440–461) convinced Attila the Hun to turn back a planned invasion of Italy.
- Gregory VII (c. 1025–1085, pope 1073–1085) excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV during the Investiture Controversy. Henry sought absolution from the pope by walking barefoot through the snow to the village of Canossa.
- Clement V (c. 1260–1314, pope 1305–1314) moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to the French city of Avignon, where it remained for 67 years in a period nicknamed the “Babylonian Captivity.”
- Clement VII (1478–1534, pope 1523–1534) was pope during the 1527 Sack of Rome and refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He is not to be confused with Antipope Clement VII, whose election in 1378 began the Western Schism.
- Gregory XIII (1502–1585, pope 1572–1585) introduced the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 to correct the previous Julian Calendar.
- Pius XII (1876–1958, pope 1939–1958) signed the Reichskonkordat with Nazi Germany in 1933, served as pope during World War II, and spoke infallibly to define the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (1927–present, pope 2005–2013) resigned the papacy in 2013, becoming the first person to do so since the 15th century.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Jacob Augelli.