Pope John Paul II among Long-Tenured Popes

By Gallagher, Joseph | National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Pope John Paul II among Long-Tenured Popes


Gallagher, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter


May 18, the feast of Pentecost, will also be the 77th birthday of Pope John Paul II. The John in his papal name honors Pope John XXII, who hoped that the Second Vatican Council would bring about a new Pentecost in the church.

Pentecost means 50 in Greek, and it originally referred to the 50th day after the Jewish Passover. For Jews it was a harvest festival that later came also to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses.

For Christians it means the 50th day after Easter. On that day, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and ignited them with the zeal to preach the new law of Jesus and harvest the whole world for his church.

For many observers, the key question about the present pope is whether his tenure as bishop of Rome has fanned or dampened the spirit of a new Pentecost in the church. That tenure has been extraordinarily long. As of May 14, only a dozen out of the 264 or so successors of Peter have governed longer than he. He will mark his 19th anniversary Oct. 16, less than five months from now. The average term is less than eight years.

In the order of increasing papal longevity, these are the popes that have reigned longer than John Paul II:

1. Zephyrinus (199-217): Though his precise dates are uncertain, he may have been the first pope to have governed longer than the present one. One of his critics dubbed him simple, uneducated and inexperienced. Upon Zephyrinus' death, that critic became the first anti-pope, Hippolytus.

2. Pius XII (1939-1958): He has his critics, who find him too complex and too experienced as a compromising papal diplomat. As pope he had to deal with fascist leaders during World War II.

3. Clement XI (1700-1721): He had been ordained a priest only a few weeks before being elected pope. He took several days to say yes, but his piety and austerity were such that even Protestant governments welcomed his election.

4. Leo III (795-816): On Christmas day 800 in Rome, this pope, supposedly a subject of the Byzantine emperor, placed an imperial crown on the head of the Frankish king, Charlemagne, and paid reverence to him. (No subsequent pope ever did obeisance to a Holy Roman Emperor.) This was a pivotal moment in European and Catholic history. Earlier Leo had been attacked by a mob that tried to cut out his eyes and tongue, and was temporarily deposed on charges of perjury and adultery. Later he was the object of an assassination conspiracy. Once venerated as a saint, he has been dropped from the list of saints.

5. Urban VIII (1623-1644): The consecrator of the new St. Peter's, he was a Jesuit-trained Florentine who had been titular archbishop of Nazareth and a personal friend of Galileo (who was nevertheless condemned under Urban). He was elected at a conclave during which eight cardinals and some 40 assistants died of malaria. So unpopular were his financial demands and his greedy relatives that upon his death a riot of joy erupted in Rome.

6. Leo I (440-461): Twenty-one years a pope, Leo is one of only two bishops of Rome to be accorded the title "the Great," Gregory I (590-604) being the other. He asserted to an unprecedented degree the concept of papal authority over the whole of Christendom. Hard-working, pastoral and personally brave" he confronted Attila the Hun and dissuaded him from descending on Rome. Three years later he induced the Vandal Genseric to spare Rome and its people from fire, torture and massacre.

7. Sylvester 1 (314-335): He was the first pope to rule for 20 years, years spanned by the even longer rule of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who built the first St. Peter's. It is not true that Sylvester baptized Constantine, nor that Sylvester was the recipient from the emperor of the famous land grant (and forgery) called the Donation of Constantine.

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