Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II

Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II

by Richard P. McBrien

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Lives of the Pope is the most thorough, vivid, and fascinating history of the papacy available. Renowned Catholic commentator Richard McBrien offers a fresh, intelligent look at each of the 262 popes, including:-The Apostle Peter, the first pope, in his singular role as Vicar of ChristFormosus, the pope whose corpse was exhumed, dressed in full vestments, and…  See more details below


Lives of the Pope is the most thorough, vivid, and fascinating history of the papacy available. Renowned Catholic commentator Richard McBrien offers a fresh, intelligent look at each of the 262 popes, including:-The Apostle Peter, the first pope, in his singular role as Vicar of ChristFormosus, the pope whose corpse was exhumed, dressed in full vestments, and subjected to a mock trial for papal misdeedsBoniface, elected pope after having been defrocked twice for immoralityJohn XXIII, perhaps the most beloved pope in all of historyLives of the Popes provides chronologically arranged biographies of the pontiffs, revealing the full sweep of the papacy. Each entry contains essential information on a pontiff’s life, major writings, controversies, and deeds both great and evil. McBrien eloquently and powerfully brings to life the unique stories of the popes and reveals how they transformed Christianity and the world.John Paul II, the present Bishop of Rome

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Although Catholic Tradition, beginning in the late second and early third centuries, regards St. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome and, therefore, as the first pope, there is no evidence that Peter was involved in the initial establishment of the Christian community in Rome (indeed, what evidence there is would seem to point in the opposite direction) or that he served as Rome's first bishop. Not until the pontificate of St. Pius I in the middle of the second century (ca. 142-ca. 155) did the Roman church have a monoepiscopal structure of government (one bishop as pastoral leader of a diocese). Those whom Catholic tradition lists as Peter's immediate successors (Linus, Anacletus, Clement, et al.) did not function as the one bishop of Rome. (The succession lists were passed down by St. Irenaeus of Lyons [d. ca. 200] and the historian St. Hegesippus [d. ca. 180], and were attested by Eusebius of Caesarea [d. ca. 3391, often called the "Father of Church History.") The Roman community seems instead to have had a corporate or collegial form of pastoral leadership. Those counted among the earliest popes, therefore, may very well have been simply the individuals who presided over the local council of elders or presbyter-bishops. Or they may have been the most prominent of the pastoral leaders of the community. In any case, the popes of the first four centuries-that is, until the watershed papacy of Leo I in the middle of the fifth century--functioned with relatively limited authority beyond Rome and its immediate environs.

For example, Pope Sylvester 1 (314-35) seems to have exercised no discernible influence over the firstecumenical council held at Nicaea in 325. He neither convened it nor attended it. The same can be said of Pope Damasus 1 (366-84) with regard to the second ecumenical council held in Constantinople in 381, and of Pope Celestine 1 (422-32) with regard to the third ecumenical council held at Ephesus in 431. And when the Donatist schismatics in North Africa appealed to the emperor Constantine to overturn a decision of Pope Melchiades, the emperor summoned a council of representatives from all the Western provinces to meet at Arles on August 1, 314. Melchiades died several months before the council actually met, but it is significant that the emperor, in calling the council, did not regard the pope's decision as final and that neither Melchiades nor his successor took exception to the emperor's action.

Neither is there any evidence that the bishops of Rome actually governed other local churches, legislated for them, or appointed their bishops. At most, the bishops of Rome during these first four centuries may have exercised a kind of metropolitan authority over neighboring Italian sees, which came to be known as suburbicarian sees. But there is less evidence even for this than there is for the dearly "sovereign" authority exercised by the see of Alexandria over all the churches of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Indeed, when Pope Julius I acted in support of St. Athanasius following his second expulsion from Alexandria in 339, it is significant that Julius justified his intervention not on the basis of the Petrine primacy, to which later popes would appeal, but on the basis of ecclesiastical custom and the collegiality of the episcopate. And when Celestine 1 (422-32) rehabilitated a presbyter excommunicated by the African bishops and who later admitted his guilt, the African bishops chastised the pope for failing to respect their autonomy and for entering into communion with persons they had excommunicated, a practice, they reminded him, that was expressly forbidden by the Council of Nicaea (325). Not until the pontificate of Leo the Great (440-61) was the claim of universal papal jurisdiction (that is, over the whole Church, East as well as West) first articulated and begun to be exercised in any really decisive manner.

Little is known about these early popes. There is reason to believe, however, that like Peter many, if not all, were married. At least four of these early popes were sons of priests: Sixtus I (ca. 116-ca. 125), Damasus 1 (366-84), Boniface 1 (418-22), and Innocent 1 (401-17), whose father was not only a priest but a pope, Anastasius 1 (399-401). If Pope Anastasius I were not married, his son would have been illegitimate and, therefore, ineligible for ordination to the priesthood, much less for election to the papacy.

The first pope who reached out to assert his authority beyond the borders of his own ecclesiastical community and its suburbicarian sees was Victor 1 (189-98), an African. It was Victor who ordered other churches to conform to the Roman practice of celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (the day of Passover). At his urging synods were held in various parts of the ancient Christian world, from Gaul (modern-day France) to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), where it became gradually dear that the majority was in agreement with Pope Victor. But when Victor presumed to excommunicate those who disagreed with his ruling, he was rebuked by no less a prominent figure of the early Church than St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who pointedly reminded the pope that all of his predecessors had been indulgent toward diversity of practice and had not dared to resort to the ultimate weapon of excommunication.

When popes did begin to engage in theological disputes with the pastoral leaders of other churches, they were sometimes rebuffed as interlopers or, worse, as having erroneous views. For example, Pope Stephen 1 (254-57) and St. Cyprian (d. 258), bishop of Carthage, dashed over the question of the validity of baptism administered by heretics and schismatics. Cyprian followed the belief and practice of most of the churches of North Africa, Syria, and Asia Minor, namely, that those baptized by heretics and schismatics had to be rebaptized if they were to enter or be reconciled with the Catholic Church. Stephen represented the tradition of Rome, Alexandria, and Palestine, which held that baptisms by heretics and schismatics are valid and that the only condition required of those seeking to enter or be reconciled with the Catholic Church was absolution of their sins by the laying on of hands. When Stephen threatened to break communion with all the churches that practiced rebaptism, he was implored by Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264/5), himself a supporter of the Roman position, not to take such a hard line. The situation would surely have worsened had Stephen not died in the midst of the controversy.

Lives of the Pope. Copyright © by Richard McBrien. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Richard P. McBrien is Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Educated at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he has also served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. A leading authority on Catholicism, he is the bestselling author of Catholicism, Lives of the Popes, and Lives of the Saints, as well as the general editor of The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Most recently a consultant for ABC News, McBrien offers regular commentary on all the major television networks. He is also a prizewinning syndicated columnist in the Catholic press.

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