On December 17, 2023, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today’s Pope Francis, will be 87  years old. He has now been Bishop of Rome for ten years. On September 30th he will appoint 21 new cardinals, bringing the total number of cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave to 137. I suspect the most historic event in this papacy, however, will be the push toward synodality. Francis has called for a synod to be held in Rome, starting in October 2023 with another session in October 2024. The theme is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” Thinking about these events and the Pope’s recent World Youth Day trip to Portugal, my reflections went back to papal history. 

The first pope I remember was Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, who declared the Catholic dogma of the Assumption in 1950. Pius XII’s photo appears in this week’s post. I suspect, however, that many people have never heard of Mother Pascalina Lehnert. As a young nun, she worked with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio in Bavaria, and then spent many years in Rome as his trusted advisor and assistant when he became Pope Pius XII.

When we look at the history of the papacy, the are facts, for sure. There are also a lot of pious fantasies especially about the beginning of the papacy. One of my old acquaintances, who is now a U.S. cardinal, still loves to remind people “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.” With all due respect, that is a fifth century imaginatve-fabrication. It is not history. 

In reality we have no detailed historical accounts about Peter’s life. We do know that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome because there were Christian communities in the city before either of the two apostles arrived there. Nor can one assume that Peter established a succession of bishops in Rome. There are clear historical indications in fact that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of Peter and Paul. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome. Leadership was not exercised by a central administrator bishop but by a group of elders. At some point Peter might have been a member of that group of elders. That hypothesis is held by some. In fact, wherever we look historically, the once so solid outlines of the “Petrine succession” at Rome seem to dissolve, somewhat like dreams after one wakes up. We are waking up today.

Few verses in Scripture have generated as much historical controversy and divisiveness as Matthew 16:18. That biblical discussion is still ongoing but Peter was not the “rock on which the church was built.” Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1988) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity: “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

Jerusalem was the first center of Christian life. The first Christian community there was led not by Peter but by James, one of Jesus’ brothers. By the time Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, however, there were already Christian communities in Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus, as well as Rome.

Peter did play a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James, the brother of Jesus, was in charge and it was James who issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Peter (“Cephas” in Aramaic) went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew Christians. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.” (Paul writing in Galatians 2:11)

There is a later tradition that Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome at the hands of Nero, who died in 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events and legends are rarely historical. 

By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from later suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) an influential early bishop in the south of France. 

In the third and fourth centuries CE, the term pope – coming from the Latin word papameaning “father” — was used for bishops in general and then later used more for special bishops. So we see in the historic literature references, for example, to the “Papa of Constantinople,” and the “Papa of Rome.” The presumption back then was that all the “papas” should work together. The “papa” in Rome had an honorary position but was not the supreme decision-maker. The “papa” in Rome was “first among equals.” Each “papa” took care of the church in his region. This all changed when the Roman Empire began to collapse.

When the Western Roman Empire began to fall apart after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395 CE, the bishops of Rome began to assume more and more control over civil and ecclesiastical life. The bishop of Rome Papa Leo I (who died in 461), was the bishop of Rome well known for convincing Attila, the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453 CE, to not invade Italy. Leo was a Roman

aristocrat, very proud of himself and fond of stories and legends about the Apostle Peter. He solemnly proclaimed in 446: “Peter speaks to the whole church through the Bishop of Rome.” And that was the beginning of the “Petrine papacy.”

The bishops of Rome – the papas — took over the ritual, the dress, the pageantry, and the power structures of the Roman emperor. In many ways, ancient Rome was resuscitated; and it was baptized and confirmed in papal Rome. Not even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures could have reproduced Imperial Rome and its emperor with the precision and detail adopted and enacted by the bishops of Rome.

Since the fifth century there has been a long parade of episcopal papas in Rome. Some were kind and benevolent. Others were ruthless and immoral depots. They all, however, rather enjoyed having papal power.

Periodically over the centuries, various powerful bishops of Rome reaffirmed and strengthened their authoritarian power, turning the pope (for a while) into the number one monarch on our planet. Pope Pius IX of course tried to recapture that supreme earthy authority, when, after losing the “Papal States” in 1870 he had himself proclaimed infallible. He craved power.

And the papal story goes on and on.

After sharing my pre-publication text with a good friend, he asked: “But now what about the belief that Peter was the First Pope?” I replied: “Only with a great deal of imagination can one say Peter was the First Pope. But some Catholics past and present are known for their creative imaginations.” And no. I am really not anti-Catholic.

How refreshing it would be if the next pope would confine to a museum or simply sell all the old Roman papal imperial dress and ritual regalia. The bishops of Rome should adopt a more contemporary way of dressing and walking on this earth. (Other bishops as well.) Most importantly they should not be authoritarian monarchs. They should implement an honest and transparent shared-decision-making and shared-leadership ministry. That indeed would emulate Jesus Christ rather than archaic Roman emperors.


PS – For an excellent history of the popes, see Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy. The latest edition covers the unprecedented resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of the first Argentinian pope.

13 thoughts on “Facts & Fantasy: a Bit of Papal History

  1. Thank you for sharing with us a “bit of papal history.” Well done! We cannot understand the recent popes without this context. Yes, it would be refreshing to see a pope in contemporary dress but I don’t see that happening in the immediate future – sigh.

  2. Jack,
    Thanks for the historic review. It is interesting how history has been and is continually being “rewritten”. Hopefully, the Synod will move us toward a Church that divests itself of trappings of imperial power and becomes truly the People of God. The fact that we are hearing so little of the Synod from our local bishops indicates that they are not willing to relinquish their power and that the Spirit will have to work overtime.

  3. How your reflection awakens memories, i.e. La Popessa! I remember reading the book and sharing it with a lawyer/friend many years ago, then discussing Pius XII and her over many a lengthy lunch in Dearborn. What I wonder now is who might be responsible for the collection of popes, beginning with Peter, that appear in the PJ Kenedy Annual Catholic Directory? I suspect Cardinal Burke will have a real hard time with any ‘historic’ threat to the authenticity of papacy as we now know it; but I suspect his difficulty will be more associated with his capa magna! Last week, when you recounted the story involving the question of when the church would permit the ordaining of gay men, I laughed! This week, I’ll add to that issue — why are so many bishops afraid of LGBTQ — when they have been dressing in drag for so long?

    1. Thanks Joe. Yiur final sentence reminds me of another bit of history. I remember when U.S. bishop, sent by the USCCB to examine the American College in Leuven for “signs of homosexuality.” The first day he arrived he sat next to a young seminarian and began to unzip his pants and fondle him. The young man, a seminarian from his own diocese, objected. The bishop said “if you wan to be ordained you have to keep me happy.”

  4. Thanks, Jack, for a most enlightening history lesson. FWIW, I am a protestant (Disciples of Christ) who greatly appreciates what you contribute to the faith.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Jack, for bringing me a chuckle of relief from the morning reports about the Republican “debate” last night. The old cardinal’s parroting of the line, “Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock…” is more about brand-loyalty to power and elitism than to faith. Who is the front-runner, Peter or Jesus? Is this a debate?

    All my life I thought Jesus/Yeshua was the firm foundation of faith in a person, thanks to a solid Catholic education with exposure to scripture starting in 1952. I remember listening to live radio broadcasts, in St. Andrew’s school classroom, of Pius XII dying with hiccups, and constant “recitations” at lightning speed of rosaries to ward off– what, exactly? That magic faded, but Providence graced us with John XXIII instead.

    The cardinal’s line about St. Peter (“Rocky”) reminded me instantly of how the record actually shows that Yeshua ordered Cephas to get behind him, to follow him, to stop wandering into dangerous terroir, not to get ahead of himself. Rocky is, if anything, the stumbling block, the millstone, but also a man of deep sorrows and repentance, finding the Lord in surprising places.

    One problem behind the mythology and magic might be how these “fundamental” saints like Peter and Paul have several skeletons in different shrines… Yes, I am mixing scriptural and cultural metaphors, but isn’t there a reality behind the translations– textual and artifactual– and the political gaming of them, i.e. the Ever Present Origin, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Thank you for advancing our thinking, our transformation, and maybe even metanoia, with surprises.

  6. Dear Jack,
    Thank you for enlightening and informing us about the papacy and its impact on us. Strange how the truth somehow de-mystifies the papacy. I admire Pope Francis even more when it seems that he wants to share power and control in the church. I wonder where that could lead.
    Frank Skeltis

    (On an aside, I am intrigued by your two references to “James, the brother of Jesus.” Your words are always carefully chosen and never accidental. I can’t wait to hear your explanation!)

    1. Many thanks Frank. I want to see synodality put into action!
      About James the brother of Jesus: Most contemporary scripture scholars would agree that the historical Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua) had brothers and sisters and that they were the sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. The brothers of Jesus or the adelphoi in Greek, meaning “from the same womb” are named in the New Testament, in Mark and Matthew, as James, Joses (a form of Joseph), Simon, Jude, and unnamed sisters are mentioned in Mark and Matthew.

      By the 3rd century, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary had become well established, but that of course raised problems with what had been accepted in Mark and Matthew so other explanations were found.

      The traditional Roman Catholic explanation for the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters became that they were really cousins or children of Joseph before he married Mary.

  7. Thanks, Jack, for posting the picture of Pius XII. I burst out laughing when I saw it! Of course, I remember Pius XII (and his hiccups) but it still surprised me! All the hierarchical regalia is so laughable! You paint a wonderful contemporary picture of synodality and modern dress. May it be so, may it be so.

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