Interesting trivia about the papal selection process

The process of selecting the new pope is about to begin. The cardinals began today to go through the preliminaries before deciding when to begin the conclave that actually elects the pope. I came across an article by David Gibson that provides some information on the process as well as interesting historical trivia.

Here are a few items:

  • The longest interregnum between popes lasted two years and nine months, between 1268 and 1271. During that time, the cardinals meeting in Viterbo, a town outside Rome, could not agree on a candidate until they were forced to do so by the king of France and other rulers.
  • After the Viterbo debacle, Pope Gregory X in 1274 established what we know today as the conclave (Latin for “with a key”), in which the cardinals are essentially locked inside a room – and in olden times deprived of meals – until they settle on a successor.
  • In modern times, conclaves usually last less than a week, and often no more than a day or two. The last long conclave was in 1740 and lasted six months.
  • Technically, any baptized male can be elected pope, but the last time the cardinals reached outside their ranks was in 1378, when they chose Urban VI.
  • The last pope who was not a priest when elected was Leo X (1513-1521). He had to be ordained before taking office.
  • A pope must also be a bishop. The last cardinal elected pope who was not a bishop was Bartolomeo Cappellari, a monk who became Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. He was made a bishop four days after his election and then became pope.
  • The first pope to change his name: a fellow named Mercury, elected in 533, didn’t think it was a good idea to be named after a Roman god so he became John II.

But some things were puzzling, such as that there “have been three father-son combinations, the last when Sergius III (904-911) was later followed by his illegitimate son, John XI (931-35)”. Given that Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate, how could they have had sons? Were these popes not priests? Had they been married and become fathers before they became priests? Were illegitimate offspring not such a big deal then? Inquiring minds want to know.

But what really stood out was this one: “The first and only pope to have ordered the murder of his predecessor was Sergius III (904-11), who had Leo V killed.” This may be why later popes have thought it to be good idea to stay in office until they died and looks like something that would make a great film. If I were Benedict, I would lock my door at night.

But while there is no pope, here (courtesy of reader Norm) are some things that you can do.



  1. Andrew G. says

    The Sergius III / John XI thing may be spurious; with papal history, it’s often difficult to sort out the contemporary slander and the later whitewashing from the actual bad and good bits.

    As for popes with offspring, the most notorious by far is Pope Alexander IV (aka Rodrigo Borgia), who had a whole string of openly acknowledged illegitimate children (including Cesare, Lucrezia, Gioffre and Giovanni Borgia) mostly between his consecration as bishop and his election to the papacy.

  2. says

    There’s a series called ‘The Borgias’ which details the papacy of Alexander VI, who had an entire illegitimate family. It’s taken as an open secret that the high priesthood have carnal relations, at least during that time.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    References to papal ‘nephews’ and ‘nieces’- the source of ‘nepotism’- are actually to their bastards. The same applies to other priests. There’s an old joke about roman catholic priests: ‘Everyone calls them “Father” but their children.’

  4. Jared A says

    well especially in the medieval era the pope was essentially an elected, notably influential monarch. It’s not surprising they did the things most other monarchs did: had illegitimate children, had other claimants marginalized or executed, etc.

  5. Nathair says

    There’s a series called ‘The Borgias’ which invents details about the papacy of Alexander VI


  6. Didaktylos says

    @#4 – i believe the full version of that joke is that a Roman Catholic priest is addressed as “Father” by other men’s children and “Uncle” by his own.

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