Popes have often found themselves at the center of some of history’s most memorable events. As the Bishop of Rome, leader of the Catholic Church, and the Vatican’s head of state, the position brings with it considerable clout – which popes in the past have used to help shape the course of history.
Some of them have been saints (an impressive 80 popes have attained sainthood), while others are remembered as sinners (several of whom ended up in the “Eighth Circle of Hell” in Dante’s Inferno).
Students who study abroad in Rome – the capital of Italy AND the Catholic Church – are also at the center of the action. Enrich your time in the Eternal City by learning more about how popes have wielded their power to shape politics and religion around the world.
Read on and discover four famous popes – and for better or for worse, the legacies they left behind.
Leo I: Successfully Saved Rome from Attila the Hun
Few people in history can claim to have encountered Attila the Hun and survived to tell the tale. But, as students completing their classical studies in Rome might know, in 452 Attila the Hun was on the brink of invading Italy when he met with Pope Leo I.
While the specific details of their meeting are unclear, historians do know that shortly after, Attila the Hun suddenly withdrew his army. Whether it was due to lack of supplies, an outbreak of the plague, Leo’s intervention, or a combination of all three is still discussed among historians.
Leo X: Provoked a Religious Revolution
While some popes have been praised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for their legacies of peace and piety, others have incited controversy and dissention.
Pope Leo X was a great patron of the arts and spent lavishly, famously saying “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” But, while his efforts did contribute to rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica (which study abroad students can visit with just a short bus ride from JCU), his mismanagement of funds led to outrage among some members of the Christian faith. Chief among his critics was Martin Luther, who condemned Leo X’s habit of writing out indulgences in exchange for more money.
Their rift ultimately lead to a religious revolution, known as the Reformation, and the formation of an entirely new branch of Christianity called Protestantism.
John XXIII: Intervened During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Even before he became pope, John XXIII gained a reputation for compassion when he helped save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution during the Holocaust. Once he became pope in 1958, he continued to advocate for human rights, encourage peace, and promote positive relations between Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, and other faiths.
He removed anti-Semitic passages in official liturgy, instituted reforms in the Church, and also intervened during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the height of the crisis, Pope John XXIII spoke on the Vatican Radio, imploring Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy to “spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict.”
Some historians even claim that that intervention helped diffuse the mounting tension between the two nations, and resolve the crisis.
Pope Francis: Still Building His Legacy While You Study Abroad in Italy
In 2013, students, locals, and Catholics from around the world gathered in St. Peter’s Square to watch the Papal inauguration of Pope Francis. Imagine getting to be a part of such a pivotal historical event while you study history in Italy!
While only time will tell what type of legacy Pope Francis will build, it is clear that he has already gained immense popularity.
Already, Pope Francis has set new records by becoming the first pope from Argentina, the first Jesuit priest to become a pope, and the first pope to tweet. His compassion for the poor, welcoming approach to the LGBT community, and promised reforms on everything from Vatican bureaucracy to appointing women in senior positions has captured attention across the globe.
Which other popes do you think have had a profound impact on history?