The first thing you have to understand is that this is not a joke. It actually exists: a clock that, instead of having numbers, has pictures of the twelve popes who shared the name of “Pius” throughout the centuries.

The second item is more of a question: could you have possibly thought up this clock if it didn’t exist?

Well, the Pope Pius Clock does exist and you can buy your own right here: http://www.popepiusclock.com. Because my wife loves me—and has a terrific sense of humor—she surprised me with my very own Pope Pius Clock which proudly hangs in our kitchen. It is, if nothing else, a wonderful conversation piece for visitors.

But it is actually more — much more — than that: it’s a teaching tool for our nine-year-old twins (who still are more confused by a clock that has no numbers, but papal profiles). Who were these men who through the course of two millennia took the name of Pius?

In the beginning, as it were:

(1) St. Pius I (c. 142-155)

Depending who is doing the counting, Pius I is either the ninth or tenth pope after St. Peter himself. In addition to being the brother of Hermas, a freed slave and purported author of The Shepherd, an early and important patristic work, Pius I also knew St. Justin Martyr, another significant source of patristic writings. Tradition says he was also a martyr and put an end to the heresy of Gnosticism. His feast day is July 11.

(2) Pius II (1458-1464)

After a thousand-plus years of popes named Urban, Innocent, John, Paul, Martin, Leo, Gregory, and Sixtus (among many others), Enea Silvio Piccolomini took the name of Pius in reminiscence of the poet Virgil’s “Pius Aeneas”. (This Pope Pius was a poet). Though he had led, like the prodigal son, a dissolute life (and sired several children out of wedlock), his re-conversion to the faith was heartfelt and true—though he remained a poet-warrior whose two ambitions seemed to be (1) writing non-stop, and (2) getting another Crusade underway. Though his Crusade never got out of dock, he did write everything from novels to plays to a letter to the Sultan asking him to repent of Islam and be baptized. It was never sent.

(3) Pius III (1503)

One of the shortest pontificates ever, Francesco Todeschini, a nephew of Pope Pius II, is a classic case of what-might-have-been. A skilled linguist and diplomat, well-cultured, and of noble stock, he was a “compromise candidate” to keep Cesare Borgia out the cardinals’ collective business. However, he was so sickly that even his coronation ceremony had to be truncated and Pope Pius III died just ten days later.

(4) Pius IV (1559-1565)

Giovanni Angelo Medici was not one of the famous  Florentine Medici, but he did act as a sort of stop-gap between the interminable infighting of the Roman families: Carafas, Collonas, Borgia (imported from Spain), Borghese, and Barbarini. Seen as both convivial and affable—especially compared with his predecessor—Pius had advanced degrees in medicine and law, along with three children. However, he gave two inestimable gifts to the history of the Church. First, he reconvened the Council of Trent (and even more impressively brought it to a conclusion). Second, he had an eye for stand-out talent and created his nephew Carlo Borromeo (St. Charles Borromeo) a cardinal, who proved a huge and continuing influence on the Church for decades, if not centuries, with his help in the implementation of the Counter-Reformation.

(5) St. Pius V (1566-1572)

Michael Ghislieri was born in penury, proving that even in the Counter-Reformation, a poor man of great genius could rise to the Chair of Peter. He entered the Order of Preachers, whose white habit he wore after his elevation as pope (which is why the pope wears white to this very day). He also wore a hair-shirt, practiced extreme austerities, and, to his detractors, “seemed to want to turn all of Rome into a monastery”. However, he took his predecessor’s Council of Trent papers and put them into action. He revised the Breviary, the Missal, the Catechism, and the Vulgate edition of the Bible. A do-er as much as a pray-er, he is the man responsible for the win at the Battle of Lepanto and implored all to pray the Holy Rosary for victory over the vastly superior Turkish fleet, a prayer which was granted. His feast day is April 30.

(6) Pius VI (1775-1799)

One of the longest reigning pontiffs and something of a throwback to an earlier time: a patron of the arts at a time when more pressing issues were at hand (namely the French Revolution followed by Napoleon at the gates), Pius seemed not to grasp the gravity of the situation in France (where the Church was under siege)—nor for that matter Napoleon’s invasion of Milan and then the papal states. However, in what was a stroke of genius, Pius VI left instructions for the holding of the next conclave in emergency conditions, as he’d been chased across the boot of Italy from Rome to Tuscany, Florence to Turin to Briancon and Valence where he died—incredibly—as a prisoner of Bonaparte, who thought this would be “the last pope”. Not by chance did he wind up at the bottom of the clock.

(7) Pius VII (1800-1823)

The first thing Cardinal Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonte did upon his election (after a three-and-a-half-month conclave in Venice) was to keep the same papal name as his predecessor to show that the papacy, though imprisoned, had not been broken by the tyrannical Napoleon. His training as a Benedictine monk—the privations and asceticism according to the Rule of St. Benedict—would serve him well since he, like Pius VI, wound up Napoleon’s prisoner. Once Napoleon was deposed for good, Pius re-entered Rome, restored the suppressed Society of Jesus, established the Sacred Congregation of Propagation of the Faith, and, in an almost unbelievable turn of forgiveness, granted sanctuary to Napoleon’s relatives who had been run out of France into Italy!

(8) Pius VIII (1829-30)

Francesco Saverio Castiglioni was pope for less than a year-and-a-half, but he made the most of his time. His one and only encyclical Traditi humilati nostra cast the blame on the downturn of religion and the established social order on Freemasonry, secret societies, Protestant biblical studies and indifferentism. He tried to make sense of the mess that France had become by accepting the July 1830 revolution in Paris, which deposed King Charles X and ushered in Louis-Phillipe, who swore to respect the 1801 concordat which was to restore Catholicism in that country. He also approved the decrees of the First Council of Baltimore, and surprisingly, reached an agreement with the Turkish Sultan over the rights of Armenian Catholics. But his health was always poor and he died before any of his other reforms could be put into place.

(9) Bl. Pius IX (1846-78)

“Pio Nono” in Italian, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was pope for an astounding thirty-one years (and seven months). A lot can happen in the course of a generation—and lots did: Italy officially unified itself (which Pius IX would not countenance, and for which he was chased out of Rome to Naples in disguise), and could only re-enter the Eternal City with the help of French forces. Determined to hold onto the Papal States—which the new Italy had annexed—Pius declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” and never left it again. Though things were going badly in Rome, Pius IX was able to solemnly proclaim the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, establish the Syllabus of Errors, and, perhaps most importantly, convene the First Vatican Council, which gave us the official teaching on papal infallibility. He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II, along with John XXIII.

(10) St. Pius X (1903-14)

Comparatively speaking, Giuseppe Sarto’s papal term was a short one but he made the most of it. He will always be recalled as the pope who encouraged frequent Communion and Communion for children who had reached the age of reason—for he was first and foremost a pastor. As a jurist, he codified canon law (no small feat) and perhaps even more remarkably reorganized the Roman Curia so that it would actually get things done. He brought back Gregorian Chant, revised the Breviary, the Missal and the Catechism. Further, he made sure that seminaries were producing good, solid priests. His bête noir was Modernism, which he fought to the death. Until St. John Paul II, he was the last pope to be canonized. His feast day is August 21.

(11) Pius XI (1922-39)

Achille Ratti was many things — including the papal librarian, the recipient of three doctorates, and, oddly, a mountain-climber. With the help of Cardinals Gaspari and Pacelli, he was able to finalize the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini, which established the modern Vatican City State as we know it, and relinquished any claim on the former Papal States. Pius XI had to deal with the rapid rise of home-grown Fascism, and its twin-brothers in Germany and Spain, as well as atheistic Communism, all of which caused him great sorrow and distress, as he was, first and foremost, a man of peace. His condemnation of Nazism bore the tremendous title “With Searing Anxiety”, and all of his efforts at avoiding another World War hastened his own death, which occurred the very year World War II erupted.

(12) Ven. Pius XII (1939-58)

Groomed for the top slot in the Church from the very beginning of his ecclesiastical career, Eugenio Pacelli’s star never seemed to cease its rise in ecclesiastical circles (hence he sits atop the clock in the 12-spot). A polyglot diplomat, he had the thoroughly unenviable task of dealing with Mussolini’s Fascism at home in Rome, and Hitler’s even more insane version of it in Germany. Pius XII solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, steered the Church through the horrors of World War II, and encouraged biblical studies. In a sense, he paved the way for the Second Vatican Council, an idea he’d prayed over himself.