Know your popes

Historian Thomas W. Worcester traces dramatic changes in the papacy over 500 years

By Interview by Lisa Wangsness
October 24, 2010

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The pope is the most visible religious leader in the world, and for most people living today, the image that comes to mind when they think of the head of the Catholic Church is that of the late John Paul II. A charismatic figure who was an actor in his youth, John Paul II traveled the world, and millions came to hear him preach. His successor, Benedict XVI, is more bookish but has continued the papacy in the same broad mold — as universal pastor, international diplomat, and arbiter of Catholic doctrine.

But that version of the papacy is a relatively recent creation, one very much shaped by John Paul II and the time he lived in. Five hundred years ago, the pope had more in common with a secular European ruler, write the Rev. Thomas W. Worcester and his coeditor, the Rev. James Corkery, in their new book, “The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor.” The pope reigned over central Italy and frequently went to war to protect his territory. His interests were not just the church, or even his own reputation, but promoting his own family’s profile and fortune. The Vatican’s vast military spending was rivaled only by the fortunes it paid to great artists, architects, and legions of craftsmen. The pope rarely preached and almost never traveled outside Italy.

To appreciate the enormous difference between contemporary popes and their Renaissance predecessors is to understand how sweeping a transformation can come over a seemingly timeless institution. Worcester’s book contains a dozen essays by papal scholars exploring how the functions and image of the papal office changed over the centuries. Inspired in part by a popular course Worcester teaches on the evolution of the papacy at the College of the Holy Cross, where he is a professor, the book highlights the moments in history where an office that seems ancient and unchanging underwent a dramatic metamorphosis.

Worcester spoke with Ideas from his office on the Holy Cross campus.

IDEAS: You say Julius II, who was elected in 1503, was known as the warrior pope.

WORCESTER: Julius II actually himself went into battle in armor, that is apparently true....People now might think, “Well, of course the pope is against war and he’s for peace.” Historically that isn’t obvious at all.

IDEAS: His temperament also seems wildly out of sync with our image of what a pope is like — quiet, serene, contemplative.

WORCESTER: From what we know, he had a very hot temper. His relationship with Michelangelo is something art historians often like to look at...they were both extremely bright and very accomplished and arrogant and hot-headed.

IDEAS: And he had a daughter, too? Was this common?

WORCESTER: Popes at the time often had mistresses, sometimes several mistresses. That usually was quite public, in fact.

IDEAS: Pope Leo X, who reigned from 1513 to 1521, faced the Reformation, an immense challenge to the church. But you write that he was perhaps more interested in his pet elephant.

WORCESTER: The king of Portugal sent an elephant to the pope, which was a way of displaying, of course, Portugal’s power as an overseas empire and so on. But apparently Leo X was very much taken by that elephant.

IDEAS: It wasn’t until the middle of that century that Pope Paul III finally convened the Council of Trent to respond to the Reformation. What kind of problems did it address?

WORCESTER: [A main] reason they met was to reform the Catholic Church from within. That meant...getting the bishops to get their act together. At the time, many bishops did not even reside in their dioceses. And they often would hold several [posts]....Imagine if the archbishop of Boston were also archbishop of New York, and several other places, and didn’t reside in any of them...[and] the individual in question collected the income from all those places....If you think we have trouble today with bishops, it was worse, it was a lot worse.

IDEAS: When you talk about a papal army in that period, what does that mean?

WORCESTER: Popes raised armies just like any other head of state would do. But they often relied on the time, to hire troops from outside one’s own country was done frequently....The famous Swiss guards that still exist at the Vatican, they go right back to Julius II...they’re both ceremonial at the Vatican today but they are also an actual police force.

IDEAS: When did the pope give up his territory in Italy, the papal states?

WORCESTER: [Pius IX] became a great opponent of Italian unification, because he saw that was going to mean the loss of the pope’s rule over central Italy....It didn’t work out that way, because in 1870, the Italian army marched into Rome and that was the end of the papal states. [Pius IX] began to speak of himself as a prisoner of the Vatican. Popes for a long time after that rarely left the Vatican.

IDEAS: At what point did popes start to travel again?

WORCESTER: On the scale we are thinking of, it’s not until the 1960s....To understand the changing papacy, technology is absolutely essential....The jet engine helped a lot....It’s Paul VI, from 1963 to ‘78, who really changed that — he’s the first pope to travel around the world.

IDEAS: Under Pius IX we also saw a proliferation of papal encyclicals, or letters instructing bishops and others on church doctrine. How did that change the church?

WORCESTER: That has to do with the whole idea of the pope as teacher, the pope teaching Catholic doctrine, and as part of that, addressing moral issues....Pius IX, you could say as his power as head of state disappears he emphasizes more and more his authority as a teacher, as a pastor who teaches the whole church.

IDEAS: Popes were harshly criticized, both at the time and since, for staying neutral during the world wars. Why was the Vatican neutral in World War I?

WORCESTER: After the loss of the papal states, the whole situation for the pope diplomatically was altered dramatically. He was no longer a head of state on the international scene in the way he had been....[By World War I] the notion of the pope as universal pastor was developed in such a way that for the pope to be allied with one belligerent country or another no longer makes much sense.

IDEAS: Was there any evidence of a debate within the Vatican over how to deal with the Nazis?

WORCESTER: Even before the to respond to Nazi Germany is certainly a debated issue. There was an encyclical that Pius XI had prepared. The unity of the human race was the theme. It was a response to Nazi racism. But before he actually published this encyclical, he died, and Pius XII never published it. So some critics of Pius XII say that if Pius XI had lived longer, there would have been more of a sustained critique of Nazi racism.

IDEAS: How did the advent of television shape the papacy?

WORCESTER: Where it really becomes significant is John XXIII, from 1958 to 1963....[I]n some ways he wasn’t very photogenic, he was very overweight. But he also was smiling a lot...John XXXIII was kind of the happy grandfather...which went over extremely well with Catholics as well as others....The image the press disseminated was very much of the pastor.

IDEAS: What do you think are the major questions for the office now?

WORCESTER: People got used to John Paul II, and I think they are in some ways taken aback by the more reserved manner of Benedict. I think people have questions — perhaps...more in the US than some places — when the pope travels, how much is he learning?

Lisa Wangsness is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this interview with Rev. Thomas W. Worcester misidentified the first pope whose reign was significantly affected by television. He was John XXIII.