The term papacy refers to the office of the Pope who is the bishop of Rome and presides over the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the papacy is as long as the Catholic church itself. Catholics believe it goes back to the biblical times of Jesus Christ. Matthew:16.18 “And Jesus says to Simon Peter, you are Peter the rock. And on this rock I will build my church.” That is the power that Peter received from Jesus. Peter was however later killed and crucified upside down in Rome. So the basilica of St. Peter is built over the tomb of St. Peter and is an iconic dome that dominates the skyline of Rome. St. Peter’s tomb lies directly beneath the pope’s altar in the Vatican basilica signifying that each bishop of Rome is St. Peters successor.
To date, unlike any other Christians, Rome can put at least a name in every bishop in an unbroken line back to the first century of the Christian era and to St. Peter himself whom Catholics regard as the first pope. It has been nearly 20 centuries of succession by men of great variety. Richard P. McBrien, the author of the “Lives of the Popes” says, among Peter’s successors are warriors, peacemakers, saints, politicians, pastors, reformers and nepotists alike. In the book, there are popes rated the worst of the worst popes. Pope John XII (955 – 964) is documented as having led one of the most immoral lives of any pope in history and died of a stroke allegedly in the bed of a married woman. He was apparently elected pope at the age of 18. Then there was Pope Sabinian (604 – 606), who is said to have sold grain to the hungry for a profit. So unpopular was he, that when he died, his funeral had to be diverted outside the city walls to reach St. Peters Basilica where popes are buried.
While Catholics believe that popes are elected through the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit by Cardinals in a concave separate from the outside world, history has it that the pressures of the outside world have not been absent inside the concave. There was a period when there were interferences in the people elections by various European governments, and because of politics, the papacy moved from Rome to a city in France known as Avignon. And that time is known as the Babylonian captivity of the church.
Despite the bleak history, there has been some outstanding popes. Popes that have been declared saints. Some of them have lived in our times. Pope John XXIII (1958 – 1963) is widely regarded as the most beloved pope in history. A great reformer, he called the second Vatican council in 1962, more than a century after the first Vatican Council. He died of cancer about five years into his papacy. He was succeeded by Pope Paul VI (1963 – 1978), who was another great pope. And his great statement was, “You must be missionaries to yourselves.” Then came Pope John Paul I (1978), the ever smiling pope and was only a pope for 33 days. A man who brought freshness and energy to the church, but unfortunately, he died within a month. His reign was among the shortest in papal history. It is said, he died in his sleep.
Pope John Paul II (1978 – 2005) was chosen to succeed him at the age of 58. He was a pope with energy and probably the most travelled pope. He made the world his parish. He at one point survived an assassination attempt. Later was Pope Benedict XVI (2005 – 2013), who was a great theologian. He was an intellectual. But he did the unprecedented by resigning after seven years into his papacy, breaking away from centuries of tradition. Later on, Pope Francis from Argentina succeeded him as the two hundred and sixty-sixth Pope and is currently the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Below you’ll find an informative documentary for a more thorough explanation of the papacy.