• One trailblazer meets another: President Barack Obama shakes on it with Pope Francis. (Wikimedia Commons)Source: Wikimedia Commons
As popes have come and gone over the millennia, the Church has also evolved thanks to pivotal acts by these men.
Gavin Scott

12 May 2017 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2017 - 12:59 PM

The concept of a conservative fortysomething American pope, as portrayed by Jude Law in The Young Pope, seems unlikely to us in 2017. But who’s to say it wouldn’t happen one day. After all, Catholics in centuries past would probably never have imagined a leader like Pope Francis, who said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Since the death of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church has continuously evolved – and it’s been in no small part due to the men that’ve served as pope over the years. Some more than others, of course. Let’s take a look back at some of the popes who have defined – and redefined – the Church.


The pope who talked down Attila the Hun

Pope Leo I (papacy: 440-461) wasn’t given the title “The Great” for nothing. As well as managing to convince the invading leader of the Huns to withdraw in 452 – exactly how is a matter of historical debate – he was also able to sweet-talk the Vandals when they attacked Rome a few years later. This resulted in a much less severe fate for the city and was an important step in the evolution of pope as leader. Diplomatic skills aside, Leo I was also an influential theologian whose Tome of Leo laid out the Church’s stance on the dual (human and heavenly) nature of Christ.


Mission: International – the conversion of Britain

Another pope known as “The Great”, Gregory I (papacy: 590-604), is also remembered for two main things. Firstly, he prompted the first major mission to convert pagans – in this case, the Anglo-Saxons across the Channel. The fact that the King of Kent, Æthelberht, was married to a Christian and went along with the mission helped the cause. Secondly, Gregory I’s extensive theological writings and revisions to the manner of Christian worship were hugely influential. Even Protestant writer John Calvin thought Gregory was a good guy.


The emperor-maker

Pope from 795 to 816, Leo III was responsible for the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, crowning Charlemagne as its inaugural emperor – or Imperator Augustus, if you want to get technical. In theory, the Empire would be a unified society ruled by the papacy with the emperor (as well as kings and princes) as their servants. In practice, things were a lot more complicated (and contentious) between the two positions than that.


The pope on a crusade

What to do when the Church is beset by in-fighting? Unite everyone against a common enemy: the Muslim world. And so began the First Crusade, Pope Urban II’s (papacy:1088-1099) "genius" plan to bring Christendom back in line and maybe even get the East under control. Things didn’t go down quite like that, although Jerusalem was, for a time, captured. On a more mundane note, Urban II also created the Roman Curia, the administrative component of the Catholic Church.


The Church’s authority – and reputation – is restored

Pope Innocent III (papacy: 1198-1216) is credited with restoring the Church’s position as a check and balance on sovereigns. As well as keeping those troublesome kings in line, Innocent III directed his attention to the clergy as well, stamping out corruption, and insisting on higher standards of behaviour and theological knowledge.


The pope who beautified Rome

In modern terms, Pope Julius II (papacy: 1503-1513) is what one hopes the 46th president of the United States will be like. Stepping into the papacy following Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia), he set about undoing the damage the infamous family had done to the Church. Although known as “The Warrior Pope” due to his spearheading of localised conflicts, Julius II’s lasting legacy was his patronage of artists like Raphael and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel ceiling artwork he commissioned.


Redefining the papacy for the modern era

With a papacy of 31 years 7 months (1846-1878), Pope Pius IX is the longest-serving pope since the apostle Peter. He also held the position during some of the most tumultuous years in the Church’s history, as Church and state were driven apart. As a result, Pius IX brought attention back onto the spiritual rather than the political – a focus that’s still in place today. Not the most popular of popes, he is seen as a conservative and was also responsible for the propagation of the troublesome concept of papal infallibility.


The Time Man of the Year

By contrast, Pope John XXIII (papacy: 1958-1963) served a relatively short period but did enough in that time to earn the nickname “the Good Pope”. Down-to-earth and accessible – he smoked! – Papa Giovanni convened the Second Vatican Council to revitalise the Church, and improve interaction with the modern world and other faiths.


The pope who said no to abortion – and communism

He’s the pope many of us grew up with and during his lengthy run as pontiff (from 1978-2005), Pope John Paul II’s presence loomed large. From his regular jaunts around the world to his frequent weigh-ins on everything from communism, war and apartheid to condoms and women, PJP2 did much to maintain the Church’s visibility and relevance. Whether or not you agreed with him and his views, there was no denying the significance of John Paul II’s voice.


A modern pope for the modern world

A first in many respects, Argentine-born Pope Francis assumed the papacy in 2013 and has made headlines pretty much ever since for his robust leadership style and ultra-modern, less formal approach to the position. It’s an approach which is summed up by this statement: “Not everything is black over white, or white over black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life.”


Binge the complete season of The Young Pope available now at SBS On Demand. The series also broadcasts Wednesdays at 10:25pm on SBS.

Watch the first episode right here:

more on the guide
The divine comedy within 'The Young Pope'
The show is funny because it's about the power of humor—and the absurdities of faith.
How Trumpish is 'The Young Pope'?
'The Young Pope' kangaroo - the ultimate 'Who is that guy'?
One of the most reliable character actors working in Hollywood...