1. St. Peter – the very first pope
Although St. Peter never actually held the title of Pope during his lifetime, he was the very first head of the Catholic Church. His original name was Simon, and he was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. St. Peter preached throughout Asia Minor before arriving in Rome. He lived there for 25 years before being crucified by the Roman emperor, Nero. Legend has it that he was crucified upside down because he felt that he wasn’t worthy of dying in the same way as Jesus did.
2. Pontian – the very first pope to step down
The first pope ever to resign the papacy was Pope Pontian, who headed the Catholic Church between 230 and 235 AD. He was sentenced to hard labor on the island of Sardinia by Emperor Maximus the Thracian, who was notorious for persecuting Christians. Pontian resigned immediately after he was sentenced to avert a power vacuum in the Vatican. He was beaten to death with sticks on Sardinia in October 235.
3. Sylvester I – a pope to mark the start of good times
Emperor Constantine the Great was the ruler to officially end Christian persecution in 313 AD, meaning that Pope Sylvester I became the first pope to live in slightly less dangerous times when he assumed the papacy in 314 AD. Despite Constantine’s goodwill toward Christians, Sylvester I did not attend the Council of Nicea, which resulted in the Nicene Creed and is widely thought to be the first official statement of belief for Christians.
4. Leo I – the peacemaker
Although Pope Leo I was pope between 461 and 468 AD, he’s actually more well-known for the work that he did prior to being elected to the papacy. He convinced Attila the Hun not to ransack Rome, possibly in exchange for a pile of loot. It could also be that Attila used the meeting as an excuse to turn his men back from the city due to strategic concerns.
5. Formosus – the pope who went on trial after his death
Despite being excommunicated from the Catholic Church some 20 years prior to becoming pope, Formosus was later absolved and went on to be elected. Rather gruesomely, however, his cadaver was exhumed in 897 AD (the year after his death) and put on trial. It was sat in a papal throne and dressed in full regalia before it was deemed that Formosus had been unworthy of the papacy. All of his papal edicts were deemed invalid, his fingers used to make sacraments ripped off, and his cadaver was tossed into the Tiber River.
6. Benedict V and Leo VIII – pope and antipope
By 964 AD, the people of Rome were fed up of the corrupt, venal behavior of their pontiffs, so they elected Benedict V to the papacy. The only problem was that the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, King Otto, wasn’t having any of it, so he elected Leo VIII as an antipope instead. Having two popes elected was something unheard of, so Benedict V chose to step down.
7. Benedict IX – three runs at the papacy
Pope Benedict IX is the only man to have been pope more than once in his lifetime, and the only pope ever to sell the papacy. He was just 20 years old when he assumed the papacy for the first time in 1032 AD, but he quickly gained a reputation for lacking all moral balance and leading a dissolute life. He was expelled from his role on two separate occasions and reinstated before selling it to a fellow priest in 1048 AD.
8. John – the “pregnant” pope
Legend has it that a pope who ruled between 855 and 877 AD, Pope John, was actually a woman. According to a Dominican monk who lived in the 13th century, John was brought to Athens in men’s clothing, taking up study and becoming a master of learning in the city. John, or “Pope Joan”, supposedly gave birth in a church procession, but the accuracy of the story is disputed due to the chaos that reigned supreme during the Middle Ages.
9. Urban VII – the shortest-reigning pope
There have been numerous popes that lived for just a few days after assuming the papacy, such as Stephen, who died within days of being elected in 752 AD. There was also Damasus II, who ascended to the papacy in 1048, only to die 23 days later. Celestine IV was elected in 1241 but died just 16 days later. The shortest papal reign of all, however, belongs to Urban VII, who as elected in 1590 before passing away just 12 days later.
10. Gregory XII – the last pope to abdicate before Benedict XVI
Pope Gregory XII was elected in 1406, which is more than 600 years ago. He had a reputation for being a pious man and was actually one of three different popes to rule at the time. The ensuing chaos must have been a factor in his decision to abdicate and convened a council to sort out the mess prior to leaving the papacy in 1415.