Contact Us

The other Benedicts

30 November, 1999

Paul Kildare lists previous Popes Benedict. One was a saint, another a scoundrel. One was murdered, another excommunicated. One was an antipope, another had a brother and a nephew popes.

The first seven popes named Benedict were Romans. Little is known about Benedict I except that he reigned for four years from 575. The only canonized saint among the 15 was St Benedict II, who was pope for less than a year and died in 685. Shortly after Benedict III was elected in 855, a rival cardinal had him removed by force, but the people brought him back again a few days later and he reigned for more than two years.

All we know about Benedict IV is that he was “a mild man” and “generous to the destitute”. Few records survived his turbulent two-year reign, from 900. Benedict V was deposed one month after his election in 964. On the Emperor Otto’s orders, he was stripped of his pontifical robes, had his pastoral staff broken over his head and was exiled to Hamburg, where he died two years later.

Benedict VI reigned for only 18 months. In June 974 the powerful Crescentii family overthrew him and installed an antipope, Boniface VII, who had Benedict murdered and then fled to Turkey with the Church’s money. The assassinated pope was succeeded by Benedict VII, an aristocrat and a deeply religious man who had a peaceful reign of nine years. He promoted monasticism throughout Europe and missionary work in the Slav countries.

Benedict VIII, of the powerful Tusculum family, was from Frascati, near Rome. A soldier and statesman, he spent much of his 12-year reign leading military campaigns in many parts of Italy. He was succeeded in 1024 by one of his brothers, John XIX, a layman when elected.

After his death eight years later, a third Tusculum brother bribed the cardinals and had his son, Theophylact, Benedict VIII’s nephew, elected in his twenties as Benedict IX. He was the only pope who reigned three times, at least de facto; he was also excommunicated for simony. Thirty years Later Blessed Victor III called him “a thief and an assassin” and the Church historian Gregorovius said that with him “the papacy reached the lowest point of moral decadence.” Two years after his death, yet another member of this mafia family was “elected” as antipope Benedict X for nine months.

Nearly 300 years passed before Blessed Benedict XI (Niccolo Boccasino) was elected.  Born in Treviso, he had been master-general of the Dominicans and during his eight month reign in 1304 he appointed three Dominican cardinals. Thirty years later, a French Cistercian abbot and zealous inquisitor, born near Toulouse, became Benedict XII (Jacques Fournier), the third Avignon pope, and reigned for eight years.

There was now a gap of almost 400 years until Benedict XIII (Pietro-Francesco Orsini-Gravina), an Italian nobleman from near Bari, who became a cardinal at 23, was elected in 1724 and reigned for six years. Related by marriage to Pope Clement X, he was a Dominican philosopher. An ascetic, he canonized many saints, including John of the Cross and Aloysius Gonzaga. He tried to curb the extravagance of many cardinals, forbidding them to wear wigs; he also banned lotteries in the papal states.

Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini), born in Bologna, was elected in 1740 after a six-month conclave, the longest in modern times, and had the longest reign, 18 years, of all his namesakes. Devout, cultured, modest and witty, he fostered good relations with Protestant states, reduced papal military spending and helped the poor.

Nearly 160 years separated him from Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa), about whom naturally more is known than any of his namesakes. Born in Genoa of a noble family, he was only three months a cardinal when elected pope in 1914. His eight year reign was overshadowed by World War I, which he called “a useless massacre” and tried to have stopped in 1917.  Britain and France secretly arranged to have him or the Vatican excluded from the 1919 peace settlement, though he helped war victims on both sides. His work deserves more space than is available here.

This article first appeared in The Word (June 2005), a Divine Word Missionary Publication. The baptismal and family names have been added for those in the second millenium (Editor).