What Makes a Pope a Saint?

Pope St. John XXIII
Pope St. John XXIII (photo: Register Files)

Now that all the talk about Popes Francis and Benedict XVI officiating over a momentous ceremony, making two additional popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, into saints is over with, 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 XXII and John Paul II, the Church has produced 80 saintly popes. But, considering that we've had 266 popes, that number means only a third of them have been raised to the altars. 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. This is pretty substantial considering this means that the electors for the past few centuries have been pretty good about picking the right man for the job.

All of the first 35 popes are saints considering 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 Athanasius, the theologian who promoted the Nicene Creed. Only eight popes missed the canonization train prior to AD 600—i.e., 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), Pelagius II (579-90). That's when we produced one of the most important popes in Church's early history, our 64th, 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, John Paul II) out of 9 are either saints or somewhere along the process, and talk around Vatican watercoolers is that Pius XI is going to be 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 since 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. Perhaps even the uniquely named Francis will become another St. Francis—time will only tell but he seems like he keeps hitting the mark.

In addition, there are more saints, or soon-to-be-saints, named “Pius” than any other pope name—six of them to be precise. There are also 5 Gregories, 5 Leos and 3 each of saintly Benedicts, Felixes, Innocents, Sixtuses and Urbans. In addition, there are 2 saintly Bonifaces, Callixtus, Celestines, and Eugenes. And just as there's only one St. Pope Peter, there's also only one St. Pope John (i.e., XXIII)

We've had a few villainous popes throughout the years, including the Borgias, who've hijacked the Church 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. E. R. Chamberlin documents eight particularly despicable ones in his 1969 book, The Bad Popes. Alexander VI (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 untold shame upon the Catholic Church by their opprobrious behavior which even now still makes Catholics cringe.


Bad Pope

Regnal Years

# regnal years

Pope Stephen VI

(AD 896–897)



Pope John XII

(AD 955–964)



Pope Benedict IX

(AD 1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048)



Pope Boniface VIII

(AD 1294–1303)



Pope Urban VI

(AD 1378–1389)



Pope Alexander VI

(AD 1492–1503)



Pope Leo X

(AD 1513–1521)



Pope Clement VII

(AD 1523–1534)







Eight bad popes… out of 266 starting with St. Peter (Mt 16:18-19, Jn 21:15-17) until our current Francis elected in 2013. That means 3% of Catholic pontiffs have been thoroughly reprehensible. A total of 75 scandalous regnal years out of 2000 total years. This accounts for .0375% of the time the Catholic Church has existed. This is a tiny number if we compare it to, say, the horror created by atheist communist and fascist leaders between the 17th and 21st centuries.

Those who are opposed to the Church very rarely read history books. They enjoy using the name "Borgias" as if wielding a magical talisman hoping against hope to "ward off" Catholics. Such people are intentionally unaware that St. Francis Borgia (AD 1510-1572), Fourth Duke of Gandía in Spain, 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 ten years of his training, he took on the most menial of jobs without complaint becoming furious with people who treated him as if he was still royalty. If four Borgia popes defame the Church irretrievably, what do 20,000 saints, including 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?

But, regardless of how badly modern secularists and their leaders have been, it should be remembered that they were evil 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. If fundamentalist atheists could actually tell the difference between good and evil, they wouldn't have committed the above mentioned evil atrocities against mankind. These aforementioned bad popes are well-known for having succumbed to the secular world and its excesses. That is, they weren't bad because they were Christian but rather because they embraced secularism. 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. These bad popes were bad because they were selfishly devoted to secular excess and lacked an altruistic Christian outlook on life. These eight popes had more in common with the average narcissistic atheist than they had with Sts. Francis of Assisi, Dominic de Guzmán, Francis de Sales, Gianna Molla, Damien of Molokai, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Abbé Pierre Grouès, Sr. Antonia Brenner and Sœur Emmanuelle Cinquin.

A fascinating historical irony that highlights the dichotomy between the popes and secular rulers took place in Europe in the 19th century. In AD 1808, the atheist military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, kidnapped Pope Pius VII, keeping him a prisoner for over 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. He bided his time accepting the torture at the hands of a secularist monster but when the fortunes were reversed, Pius wrote a lengthy letter to the British government asking them to spare Napoleon's life. He asked 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 revenge was a humble, loving Christian one—he turned the other check and forgave Napoleon. Completely not in keeping with the more common irreligious response typified by such great moral and compassionate atheist leaders as Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Slobodan Milosevic.

Eight bad popes. Ninety-five magnificent ones. The rest, not too bad at all.

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