The pope, the supreme pontiff, the Bishop of Rome. Whatever you call him, the titles all mean the same thing: he’s the head of the Catholic Church. It makes sense that he would embody all of the goodwill, compassion, and politicking that comes with such a title.
The papacy has been alive for centuries so naturally, it has a wild history rife with remarkable achievements — and some growing pains. These interesting facts about popes is now putting them in a whole new light…
1. Paul VI was the first pope to fly: In 1964, he traveled to the Holy Land. The most frequent flyer was former Pope John Paul II, having traveled over 725,000 miles and visited almost two-thirds of the world.
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2. St. Pius was the first pope ever photographed: The image was taken around 1850. Prior to this, the church frowned on photography, preferring in its place the staid classical portraits of yore. Can’t argue with that, after all, oil paint can hide a myriad of sins.
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3. All popes used to travel by throne: Prior to 1978, the Bishop of Rome was carried via a silk-covered armchair called a “sedia gestatoria.” The throne sat atop two rods and was transported on the shoulders of twelve footmen. Popes used this form of transportation for nearly 1,000 years!
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4. A bird once got a man named pope: Believe it or not, one bishop was appointed Pope when a dove landed on his head! There wasn’t an official system in place used to elect a new pope at the time, so when a dove landed on Bishop Anteros, he was appointed based on pure divinity.
5. To be the pope you must be male and Catholic: There are only two prerequisites to be elected pope in the modern era: be a male and be baptized by the Catholic Church. Still, a non-cardinal hasn’t been elected since 1378 — Urban VI — and his papacy faced a lot of conflicts.
6. Popes almost never resign: The previous pope, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he would be resigning from his position in 2013. Traditionally, popes hold their position until their death. The previous two willing resignations were by Gregory XII (1415) and Celestine V (1294).
7. Papal elections can go on for years: The College of Cardinals assembles in a meeting called the conclave to discuss the next papal election. This meeting can take anywhere from days to years. During this process, the College of Cardinals is not allowed to leave the Vatican. A two-thirds majority vote is needed.
8. White smoke means a new pope: While the conclave is in session, the College of Cardinals is only allowed to communicate with the world via the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. With each indecisive vote they burn the ballots using a chemical that burns black smoke; when they have come to a decision, the smoke burns white to signify a new pope has been selected.
9. A dead pope can still be put on trial: In 897, Pope Stephen VI accused former Pope Formosus of ascending to the papacy illegally, so a trial was held. Formosus was dead, so they dug up his body and put him on trial. He was found guilty, stripped of his title and robes, and re-buried in a foreign graveyard.
Jean Paul Laurens
10. The Vatican is the smallest country in the world: Founded as a city-state in 1929, Vatican City is only 110 acres. In other words, Central Park in New York City is significantly larger than this holy home.
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11. There’s a dress code to meet the pope: Those lucky enough to meet the pope have to follow a set of attire standards. If they’re a man, they should wear a black coat with tails or a black suit and conservative tie. If they’re a woman, they should wear a long black, lace dress with long sleeves and a high collar with a black veil.
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12. Certain women can wear white in his presence: A woman considered “Le privilège du blanc” (the privileged of the white) can wear white. To qualify, they must be a reigning royal or married to a Catholic monarch. Only seven women qualify: the Queen of Spain, the Queen of Belgium, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, the Princess of Monaco, the Princess of Naples, the Queen of Spain, and the Queen of the Belgians.
Gaétan Luci / Palais Princier de Monaco
13. The pope flies commercial: When the pope flies, he flies first class usually on Alitalia airlines. The flight is always referred to as “Shepherd One,” with the flight number “AZ4000.” It’s not a particularly fancy flight, but the airline will usually provide embroidered cloth headrests with the papal seal.
CNS photo / L’Osservatore Romano
14. There are secret passages in the Vatican: There is an escape route called the Passetti di Borgo, built in 1277. It connects the Vatican to a fortified castle across the Tiber River. In 1527, Pope Clement VII fled during an attack on Rome. Many of his men perished in the evacuation, but he survived thanks to this passage.
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15. The pope travels via the stylish “Popemobile” during public events: There are several different models based on the level of security needed. Some are enclosed in bulletproof glass, while some just have a front protective shield.
16. The largest gathering of heads of the state was for Pope John Paul II’s funeral: In attendance were four sitting kings, five queens, 70+ prime ministers and presidents, and dozens of religious leaders. It is believed that about four million people gathered in Rome to mourn.
17. Popes are generally older when appointed: Pope Francis, for instance, began his papacy at age 76. Still, in the past, there have been several very young appointed popes: Pope Benedict IX, 20-years-old (1032), Pope John XI, 20-years-old (931), and Pope Gregory V, 24-years-old (996).
18. The current pope is a reformer: Many believed Pope Francis is the breath of fresh air the Catholic Church needed during a time of scandal. He is known for his compassion and love for people. No disease or disability deters him from spreading kindness.
Daniel Ibanez / CNA
19. Mercurius was the first pope to change his name in 1555: He believed his papacy name should reflect a Catholic god, not a pagan god, so he changed it to John II. Pope John Paul I chose to combine the names of two great popes who lead the Catholic Church through times of turmoil.
20. The longest-sitting pope was the first pope, St. Peter: His papacy lasted 35 years from Jesus’ death until his own death, while Pope Urban VII held his position for just 12 days before dying from malaria.
Christian Research Institute
21. Rumor has it that, deep inside its vaults, the Vatican has proof of something that could send the faithful running. It’s said that the Vatican actually has evidence that Jesus never existed! If this is true, it’s easy to understand why the Church wouldn’t want anyone to know.
However, the Vatican is so notoriously secretive that people aren’t exactly sure what this so-called “proof” could be. In fact, some speculate that the proof hidden in the vaults confirms that Jesus was real. Then again, wouldn’t the Pope be shouting it from the rooftops?
22. Somebody get Mulder and Scully on the line because the Vatican could be hiding extraterrestrial skulls! That’s right: it turns out aliens have been real this whole time and Rome is trying to keep it quiet… if you believe the whispers.
Apparently, the skulls were found by construction workers during a renovation of the vaults in 1998. Thus, a massive conspiracy that went all the way up to the Pope was hatched to make sure that no one ever found out about their existence.
23. For decades, conspiracy theorists have believed that the Illuminati has worked in tandem with the Roman Catholic Church, right down to being responsible for making all of the Church’s important appointments.
But the rumors go deeper than that. Some believe that the Illuminati actually keep records of future events in the Vatican’s vaults. In addition to controlling both the Pope and Beyoncé (allegedly), the Illuminati can tell the future.
24. Have you ever dreamed of owning a device that helped you see any event in the past—and take pictures of it? Well, you’re in luck, because the Vatican is rumored to have such a device locked away in its top-secret vaults.
This device, called a Chronovisor, would give the church a ridiculously easy way to prove that Jesus existed. Of course, there’s no proof that the Chronovisor actually exists… or so we think.
25. For reasons that totally escape comprehension, the Vatican is also rumored to have the largest collection of pornography hidden in its vaults. Naturally, it was all confiscated—but if that was the case, you’d think the Church would just destroy it rather than keep it.
This would prove problematic for the Church, of course, which has been beleaguered by sexual abuse scandals involving the clergy. So if the rumors of their porn stash were true, it makes sense that they’d work hard to make sure that it was kept secret.
26. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about how Rome responded to the Nazis during World War II. One of the most disturbing is the idea that Pope Pius XII struck a deal with Mussolini agreeing to turn a blind eye to antisemitism in order to ensure his own protection.
Historian David Kertzer learned that proof of this deal is said to be hidden in the Vatican vaults. When he asked for permission to review documents from that time period, his request was denied. That doesn’t exactly put the rumor to rest, does it?
27. One of the craziest things hidden inside the Vatican’s vaults also happens to be one of the items that the Church actually admits it possesses. When you realize what it is, you might wonder how many of these rumored items could actually be real…
The Church actually keeps a silver hammer in its vaults to help determine whether or not a pope is dead. According to tradition, when a pope expires, he must be tapped on the head with the silver hammer three times before his death can officially be announced.
28. The Vatican is said to own many cloths that show off the imprint of major religious figures. One of these is rumored to be a cloth that Jesus gave to the King of Edessa as a gift. You’d think the son of God could at least afford a bottle of wine or something…
29. Unlike some of the other items on this list, the Vatican’s necropolis is real, and you can visit it when you travel to Rome. This ancient cemetery is located beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, and though it was eventually abandoned, it apparently holds the remains of St. Peter himself!
30. In the 1900s, the Virgin Mary was rumored to have visited three children and told them three critical secrets about the future. The secrets apparently predicted wars and even described what hell looked like. The true nature of these secrets is thought to be locked in the Vatican vaults…
31. If you ever visit Vatican City in Rome, you might want to pay a visit to the Gallery of the Bust. It’s a hilarious name for a place that contains a lot of stunning art. However, you might notice something odd when you’re there: none of the sculptures have eyes!
32. This might not be creepy, but it is a bit of a secret (unless you know where to look): the Vatican has a “zoo” made of up of hyper-realistic carvings of animals made in marble. This menagerie practically looks alive!
33. In 1633, astronomer Galileo Galilei was condemned to live under house arrest for saying that the Earth moved around the sun. The vaults supposedly contain papers from that era by other scientists who agreed with Galileo—scientists whom the Church ignored.