Popes Who Were Also Saints

The papacy has seen a small handful of villains in 2,000 years — and almost 100 saints.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Saint Peter in Tears,” 1650-1655
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Saint Peter in Tears,” 1650-1655 (photo: Public Domain)

The Church and the world have been extraordinarily blessed in the 20th century considering a disproportionate number of the popes have been beatified or canonized or otherwise somewhere along in the process. I started wondering about the intersecting circles of all popes and all saints in the Church’s hagiographic/petrine Venn Diagram — in other words, which popes were good enough to be saints?

Apparently, with the canonizations of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, the Church has been led by 80 saintly popes. But, considering that we’ve had 266 popes, that number means only one-third of them have been declared holy. To this august list, we should also add the additional saints-in-waiting — ten beati (i.e., Blesseds,) two Venerables and three Servants of God. Altogether, that makes 95 popes who were holy enough to register on the Church’s hagiographic radar.

All of the first 35 popes are saints — it was the time of martyrs and it simply wasn’t safe to be Christian in the Roman Empire. In fact, every pope in the first five centuries was canonized except Liberius (AD 352-366), who initially condemned St. Athanasius, the theologian who promoted the Nicene Creed. Only eight popes missed the canonization train prior to 600 — Popes Anastasius II (496-98), John II (533-35), Boniface II (530-32), Vigilius (537-55), Pelagius I (556-61), John III (561-74), Benedict I (575-79) and Pelagius II (579-90). That’s when we produced one of the most important popes in Church’s early history — our 64th pope, St. Gregory I (the Great) (590-604).

As to 20th-century popes, six (i.e., Pius X, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II) out of nine are either saints or somewhere along the process and talk around Vatican watercoolers is that Pius XI is going to become part of this Magnificent Seven.

When we examine the names of popes who are santi, beati, venerabili and testimoni, some interesting patterns appear. Sixty-one of these the saintly popes were either the “First” (i.e., John I, Leo I, Urban I, Gregory I, Felix I, etc.) or chose unique, never-before-used names (i.e., Eugene, Victor, John, Boniface, Paul, Adrian, etc.).

This means that if a man chooses a unique regnal name when he becomes pope, one never used before by any other pope, he has an inordinately excellent chance at becoming a saint once he dies.

In addition, there are more saints, or soon-to-be-saints, named “Pius” than any other papal name — six of them, to be precise. There are also five Gregories, five Leos and three each of saintly Benedicts, Felixs, Innocents, Sixtuses and Urbans. In addition, there are two saintly Bonifaces, Callixtus, Celestines, Eugenes and John Pauls. And just as there’s only one pope named St. Peter, there’s also only one pope named St. John (i.e., XXIII).

We’ve had a few villainous popes throughout the years, including the Borgias, who wormed their way in back when the pope was seen as a prince among princes, hip-deep in the business of wars and international trade. At the time, the business of spirituality was left to the hands of other competent, more focused men and women. But there were surprisingly, mercifully, very few embarrassing popes. The writer E.R. Chamberlin documents eight particularly despicable ones in his 1969 book, The Bad Popes. Boniface VIII (reigned 1492-1503), for example, was said to be so evil that Dante Alighieri placed him in his Inferno while the man was still alive, so scarlet were his sins. These men brought shame upon the Catholic Church by their opprobrious behavior, which even now still makes Catholics cringe.

But that’s eight bad popes out of 266 from St. Peter (Matthew 16:18-19, John 21:15-17) to Pope Francis. That means 3% of Catholic pontiffs have been on this reprehensible list. A total of 75 scandalous regnal years over 2,000 years. This accounts for .0375% of the time the Catholic Church has existed.

Some of the Church’s opponents invoke the name “Borgia” as if wielding a magical talisman to “ward off” Catholics. They seem unaware that St. Francis Borgia (1510-1572) was also a relative of the Borgia popes but is considered a remarkably loving saint. After his wife died, Francis had a profound religious experience and chose to give up his dukedom to his son Charles and his great wealth to the poor before becoming a Jesuit priest. During the 10 years of his training, he took on the most menial of jobs without complaint, and resisted being treated as nobility.

If four Borgia popes defame the Church irretrievably, what do 20,000 saints like St. Francis Borgia, 300,000 beati and 65 million martyrs for the Faith tell us? What do all of the 125,000 hospitals and 135,000 schools and other charitable organizations run by the Church say about us?

It should also be remembered that they were considered evil precisely because they refused to recognize that such moral distinctions as good and evil actually existed. They refused to believe because they chose not to believe in God.

These bad popes weren’t bad because they fully embraced Christianity but rather because they rejected it. None of them were famous for their spirituality and piety but rather the opposite. They were infamous because they were selfish. They were notably bad because they refused to be religious.

A fascinating historical irony that highlights the dichotomy between the popes and secular rulers took place in Europe in the 19th century. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte kidnapped Pope Pius VII, keeping him a prisoner for more than six years and physically abusing him often. Even though the pontiff was of advanced years and in frail health throughout the time of his imprisonment and torture, he refused to succumb to Napoleon’s machinations and threats.

When Napoleon was captured by British forces at Waterloo, Servant of God Pius VII was allowed to return to Rome on May 24, 1814. It was there where the pope showed his true colors. With the fortunes reversed, Pius wrote a lengthy letter to the British government, asking them to spare Napoleon’s life and for better treatment for the exiled emperor at Saint Helena, writing, “He can no longer be a danger to anybody. We would not wish him to become a cause for remorse.”

Thus, the Pope’s response was a humble, loving Christian one. He turned the other check and forgave Napoleon.

Eight bad popes and 95 magnificent ones. The rest, not too bad at all.