Read: Ten Popes Who Shook the World
By Eamon Duffy (Yale University Press, 2011)
Quick, can you name 10 popes off the top of your head? OK, maybe you can, but how about explaining the difference that each one made in the church and in the world? That might be more of a challenge.
Eamon Duffy’s Ten Popes Who Shook the World gives readers a brisk overview of the evolution of the papacy, though Duffy admits that the popes in his book aren’t necessarily the best of the bunch, or even the most influential. With 262 possible candidates, he could have easily picked 10 different men and given the book the same title. Still the popes he discusses oversaw immense change in the papacy, the church, and the world at large.
Reading Duffy’s 10 biographical sketches shows just how big a role happenstance has played in shaping the papacy.For example, we learn that Gregory the Great’s disinterest in Greek, necessary to maintain ties with the more powerful and established churches of Asia Minor, was as responsible for the growth of Christianity in Western Europe as any master plan to evangelize the pagan West.
The challenges facing each new pope are strikingly similar to those that came before. Gregory VII sought to enforce strict clerical celibacy, but five centuries later, the issue still challenged Paul III. Faced with the cataclysmic violence of World War II, Pius XII sought to remain neutral, following the model of Benedict XV in World War I. But the times and the nature of violence had changed, and Pius XII’s actions remain among the most controversial in church history.
Filled with amusing anecdotes and illustrations, including a charming photo of the future John XXIII looking like a Super Mario brother, the book is a light and entertaining read for anyone with a craving for more papal history. It may not make you an expert, but it’s a great way to get beyond the basics of the miter and the Popemobile.
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, pages 42-43.)