A History of the Popes

by John O’Malley

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


The recently deceased John O’Malley SJ, was not only the dean of American Catholic historians, he was also one of the Church’s greatest and more accomplished teachers. In his superb book, Father O’Malley combines immense learning, sparkling prose, and fascinating insights to introduce readers to the always colorful history of the papacy. There can be no better guide for the educated reader to the story of the popes tan Father O’Malley. This book originated in a series of 36 audio-lectures recorded that were published in 2006 in Now You Know Media. The intention of the author is to rework the lectures for the book that has been to provide a history of the papacy that would make clear the basic story that is in line in away accessible to the general reader. Papal history stretches over a period of two thousand years, which means there are lots of players on a field where lots of complicated games were being played. It is easy to get lost and befuddled. The relationship of the popes to “the emperors,” for instance, was so volatile and shifting over such a long stretch of time that sometimes it is hard even for professional historians to keep track of what was going on at any given point.


The author therefore tried to tell the story in as straightforward a way as possible, which means O’Malley had to pass over much that he would have liked to include. His hope is that the leaner narrative will provide a recognizable path through complicated terrain and ensure readers can keep their bearing. The author spiced the narrative with details that enliven it and at the same time illuminate the bigger issues. O’Malley further hope is that the book will spark interest in this fascinating institution and lead readers to pick up other works that treat aspects of it at greater length.


This book is about the oldest living institution in the Western world, an institution that began some two thousand years ago but that is as vital today as perhaps ever in its history. The papacy, which traces its origins to saint Peter, Jesus’s chief disciple, is embodied today in Pope Benedict XVI. In between Peter and Benedict XVI there have been some 265 individuals who claimed to be Peter’s successors and whose claim is today generally recognized as legitimate. Some were saints; some were sinners. Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great were men of heroic stature, but Pope John XII, who became pope at the age of eighteen, led such a debauched life that he was a scandal even in the debauched Roman society of the tenth century. There were besides, many other individuals who claimed to be pope, but whose claims contemporaries or posterity rejected as invalid, the “anti-popes.” They figure heavily in some parts of our story.


The popes differed among themselves in social class. Pope Callistus I was a former slave, and Pope Pius IX a noble. Pope Pius XII was from the Roman aristocracy, bit his successor, Pope John XXIII, came from peasant stock. Popes have been Greek, Syrian, African, Spanish, French, German, Dutch, and of course Italian. There has been only one English pope, Hadrian IV, and only one Polish, John Paul II. None has been Portuguese, Irish, Scandinavian, Slovak, or American. A fair number were not priests when they were elected. Pope Leo X. for instance, was a deacon, and Benedict VIII, Benedict IX as well as others, were laymen.


In this book, O’Malley tells the popes’ story as a historian, not as a theologian, but by the very nature of the subject theology must at times enter it Indeed the whole edifice of the Papacy is built upon a theological interpretation of what we may take as historical fact: Peter’s preeminence among the twelve Jesus’s closest disciples, and his subsequent ministry and death in Rome. Peter was thus the first bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope. All the popes since then claim to be his successors and to have inherited his leadership role. O’Malley tells this stories to make clear what happened and how the institution got to be the way it is.


The history of the popes is not always pretty. The popes were human beings. Even the saints among them had their dark sides. While a few were reprehensible from almost every viewpoint, most of them strove to lead a good life according to their lights. But their weaknesses showed up glaringly because of the responsibilities they bore. The polar opposite of Supreme Pontiff is “Servant of the servants of God.” The term is found as early as the fifth century, but again, was not applied exclusively to the popes until the thirteenth century. It is the most beloved of all the papal titles, and the one that expresses Christ’s message to Peter and the others at the Last Supper when he washed their feet and told them that they should do the same for others if they wanted to be his disciples. Because Vatican Council II, laid great stress on the servant-quality of all leadership in the church, Pope Paul VI added the title to the official list. This book is written with such sincerity and perseverance but such gentleness and kindness. The flow of the text is one of a great and beautiful writer. I have it in my library and hope you will have this blessed text in yours.

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