Ten Popes Who Shook the World

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


Ten Popes Who Shook the World
by Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press

Eamon Duffy, a Cambridge University professor of history, tells the story of 10 of the 262 popes, underlining that they are not the best nor the most influential but that they neatly illustrate aspects of 'the world's most ancient and durable religious institution'.

He begins with the discovery in 1939 of a shrine beneath St Peter's Basilica built by Christians in AD160 to commemorate St Peter after his crucifixion. Duffy points out that the first pope Peter, like Judas Iscariot, had once betrayed Christ but embodied a completely different story which seemed to end in defeat only instead to foster a worldwide religious movement.

Duffy moves on to Leo the Great (440-461) who dissuaded Attila the Hun from attacking Rome. The empire's power was dwindling but the pope defended Rome just as he defined Christian beliefs.

The next exemplar is Gregory the Great (590-604). Rome's population had dropped from about a million under the emperors to 50,000 and it was threatened by barbarian invasions, but Gregory set about building a new civilisation in Western Europe and converted the Anglo-Saxons.

Gregory VII (1073-1085) won the battle against civil authorities for the independence of the Church while Innocent III (1198-1216), only 37 when elected, was domineering but intelligent enough to approve the new, creative Franciscan and Dominican movements.

By the 16th century the papacy was powerful but the conduct of some Roman cardinals was scandalous. Martin Luther saw the need for reform and triggered it in the Protestant Reformation. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had been one of the 'partying cardinals' but reformed himself before being elected as Paul III. He then sponsored the Catholic Reformation through the newly founded Jesuits, who ventured beyond Europe to the Americas, China, Japan and India.

Pius IX (1846-1878) began his reign as the youngest, most likeable pope in many centuries but, because of the aftermath of the French revolution and the impact of the Italian nationalist movement which invaded the Papal States, he became a reactionary, condemning the modern world indiscriminately.

While Pius IX was criticised for reacting impetuously to the turmoil of his age, Pius XII was criticised for allegedly not reacting to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. His defenders claim he avoided protests which would only have caused greater persecution.

Roly-poly John XXIII (1958-63) took the Catholic Church 'out of its deep freeze' by his warmth and the convocation of the Vatican Council to update it.

John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in four centuries, was more popular outside the Church than among those Catholics who found him too authoritarian.

Duffy is not claiming his top 10 were all saints, but that they were all historically significant.