Ten Popes Who Shook the World

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Ten Popes Who Shook the World By Eamon Duffy Yale University Press. 176pp, Pounds 14.99.ISBN 9780300176889. Published 27 October 2011.

Like it or loathe it, you can't really ignore the papacy. It's the world's oldest dynasty, and it commands the loyalty of nearly a fifth of the world's population and the attention of a great many more. More than 260 incumbents have witnessed, and frequently shaped, the unfolding of countless world events, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of communism. Furthermore, whether popes have described themselves as "Servant of the servants of God", or - less humbly - "Vicar of Christ", they have claimed authority in a moral and spiritual dimension above the obligations of secular rulers, touching the lives of ordinary people in a way politicians never can. Whether or not you believe in Christianity, you have to acknowledge that these men have an extraordinary ability to influence the world in consequence of the office they hold, their virtues all the more inspirational, their vices and mistakes all the more damaging.

Eamon Duffy has selected just 10 individuals as the subject of this book (which grew out of a series of radio broadcasts) to produce a lively, informative, balanced and entertaining account. Leaving aside the rather unfortunate title, it is eminently readable. Scholarly elements are applied with a light touch, and the vignettes of each papal life and reign are short, spicy and satisfying. There are many fascinating details: Leo the Great melting down the church plate given by the Emperor Constantine to provide altar vessels after the Vandals looted Rome; Paul III putting his mistress, mother of his four children, into retirement in order to pursue Church reform; Pius IX overcoming the fears of his predecessor to let the railways into the Papal states.

There are some more serious points made here as well. Duffy argues that St Peter's significance was that he marked a crucial departure from a Roman understanding of religion, which served worldly ambition, towards a Christian philosophy that rejected the pursuit of power, wealth and pleasure and instead preached love and self-sacrifice. Subsequent popes may have lost sight of this at points, but the foundations were still there buried in the Christian consciousness just as the small, nondescript monument to Peter's crucifixion from AD160 lies deep below St Peter's Basilica. Leo the Great portrayed Rome's primacy as God's pragmatic appropriation of the communications network of the Roman Empire. …