• ‘Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History’ features the story of Pope Benedict XVI. (Catholic News Service)Source: Catholic News Service
A new series examines the role of the Pope through the ages, and you might be surprised that the pious image we've come to know is far from the traditional one.
Alana Schetzer

14 Dec 2018 - 4:17 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2018 - 4:17 PM

The role of the Pope is widely considered to be dedicated to God, committed to supporting the poor and vulnerable and a spiritual leader to more than 2.2 billion Catholics around the world.

So, many people would be surprised to find out that this pious image is far from a traditional one; in fact, the Pope, at various times, was married, was an adulterer who kept mistresses and fathered illegitimate children, ordered the murders of rivals across Europe, financially corrupted the Church to lavishly enrich himself, actively engaged in war and even encouraged English Catholics to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. 

Then there’s Pope Benedict I, who ascended to the role after his father bribed the Romans and who went on to sell the papacy in 1045 to his Godfather.

The new series, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, explores the deeply complex and fascinating history of one of the world’s most mysterious but powerful roles, peeling back the many layers of fact from fiction.

The six-part series profiles several of history’s most remarkable Popes – for better or worse – and looks into some of the most controversial, bizarre and important times the Church has survived. This includes the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, which was the first abdication in more than 600 years, and whose eight-year reign was described as “disastrous” for his handling of the child sexual abuse crimes epidemic.

Another is one of the most significant Popes ever, Clement VII, who was kidnapped by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s forces after they sacked Rome and whose political decision to deny Henry VIII a divorce in the 1530s led to England cutting the cord with Rome and becoming a Protestant country.


With actor Liam Neeson narrating, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History takes an unflinching look at how so many of these incidents are completely at odds with the Pope’s sharply curated contemporary image today – of a gentle yet influential statesman. How that occurred, through evolution and revolution over hundreds of years, is the underlying theme of the series. 

Over the past 2000 years, 266 Popes have sat on the Chair of Saint Peter, and yet the characteristics of the Pope haven’t really changed ­– he is always a man, has always been Caucasian (so far) and has almost always come from a European country.

But there is one Pope who truly stepped out of these characteristics by the simple fact of being a woman – Pope Joan. Although she’s largely believed to be an urban myth, there are still many people who believe she was real, and recent evidence has been uncovered by an Australian university furthering the case. Whatever you believe, Pope Joan’s brief reign in the Middle Ages dramatically strengthened the Vatican’s stance against women holding any leadership roles.

One of the most fascinating things about the role of the Pope, as detailed in this series, is not its arch-conservative traditions, but how so many of those traditions have radically evolved over the years. For example, in the case of abortion, the Church did not declare that life began at conception until 1869.

Incumbent Pope Francis has carved a public image of broad appeal, very different from that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. He is taking the first steps towards reforming some of the Church’s most hardline policies, perhaps showing that the Pope’s role, by no means set in stone, has been re-shaped over the years to reflect the Church’s power, influence and relevance.  


The first two episodes of Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History air back to back on Saturday 22 December from 8:35pm on SBS.