02/19/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Popes and the Vatican: Feats, Facts, and Historic Firsts


It was most definitely a stunner.

As we all know by now, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, the 264th successor to St. Peter, seemingly out of the clear blue sky, announced to the world he would be stepping down at the end of the month, citing failing health and insisting he was unable to perform up to the ability required by the office.

Popes, like U.S. Supreme Court Justices and baseball commissioners aren't supposed to retire, they're supposed to run out the clock and just wait for Father Time to come knocking.

So I couldn't help but wonder if there is something more to Benedict's failing health; was he perhaps gravely ill and wanted to put in motion the process of selecting his successor as quickly as possible?

When I put that very question to Thomas F. X. Noble, a medieval historian at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the city of Rome and the papacy, he responded: ``It is of course possible he is gravely ill, but I honestly think he would have said so. I think he is just old and tired. What he did is very brave. ''

Who does he think has the inside track of being elected the next pope? `` I honestly have no clue who the successor will be'' Noble admitted to me. `` They will want a competent administrator (Benedict XVI was not), someone untainted by the sexual abuse scandal, and probably someone with some presence and charisma. Maybe this is the time for the global south.''

If we take Pope Benedict at his word that he's simply in poor health and too old to continue the highly strenuous demands placed on the office, does this establish a new tradition in which popes will begin to retire or step down when they're physically unable to execute the duties to the best of their ability? Noble could only say ``we won't know until another pope resigns! But this certainly makes it possible.''

If nothing else, over the last week, we've learned a great deal about the papacy.

We know, for example, the last pope to have stepped down before his death was Pope Gregory XII in 1415, nearly 600 years ago. We know besides Benedict XVI, there was another Benedict who abdicated before his death: Benedict IX in 1044. And we now know Eggs Benedict (poached eggs placed on a slice of ham on toast with a covering of hollandaise sauce) got its name from Pope Benedict XIII (1724-1730) who liked to be served the dish during his reign.

This all led me to wonder what other interesting historic facts and nuggets about popes and the Vatican that I didn't know.

Here, then, is a collection of feats, facts and historic firsts about popes, which you might find interesting:

• The word Vatican is derived from the Latin, vates, which means ``tellers of the future.''

• Officially, the pope is the Bishop of Rome, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal church, Servant of the Servants of God, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, and Sovereign of the State of Vatican City. Unofficially, he is often called the Rector of the World upon Earth, Father of Princes and Kings, and Pontifex Maximus.

• Early in the church's history, there were no restrictions placed on pope's from marrying. In fact, Pope Hormisdas, (514-523), was the father of Pope Silverius (536-537), while Pope Gregory I (590-604) was the great-grandson of Pope Felix III (483-492).

• Among other attributes, Benedict XVI will be remembered as the first pope to join the Twitter community. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), on the other hand, was the only pope to have regularly used a typewriter, and personally typed all of his speeches, including the first drafts of many of his encyclicals.

• John XII (955 to 964), was the only pope to have been murdered after having been caught by an enraged husband, at least according to some historical accounts, in an act of adultery.

• Popes, who held professional positions outside of religious life, include: Pope Eusebius (A.D. 310) who was a medical doctor and historian; Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), who was a practicing lawyer, Pope Pius II (1458-1464) was a novelist and poet laureate, Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) was a presiding judge, and Pope Innocent XI (1676-1689) was a banker.

Three's a Charm: Pope Benedict IX (1032-1044) was the only pope elected three times. First at the age of 14, later abdicating to marry. After being elected a second time, he abdicated again and sold his seat to his godfather. And then was elected a third time, all before the age of 30.

• The only pope to have written a cook book was Pope Pius V (1566-1572), who served up ``Cooking Secrets of Pope Pius V''. The book was actually written by Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto or personal cook to Pope Pius V, which was first published in Venice in 1570. The book, which includes more than 900 recipes, reveals the pope's favorite dessert: quince tart.

• Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) was arguably the biggest automobile fan of all the popes; possessing as many as 16 cars parked in the Vatican garage, three of which were convertibles.

The pope who couldn't quite kick the habit? Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) reportedly tore through a pack of cigarettes a day during his reign. 

• The longest serving pope was Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) who reigned for 32 years; the shortest was Pope Stephen II who died on March 25, 752, four days after being elected.

NOTE: Since Stephen died before his consecratio, which according to the canon law of the time was the true beginning of his pontificate, his name is not registered in the Liber Pontificalis nor in other lists of the Popes. Discounting Stephen II, the shortest pontificate was Urban VII (1590) who lasted only 13 days.

• Pope Clement II (1046-1047) was the only pope to have been buried in Germany. Upon his death, his body was transferred to Bamberg, and interred in the western choir of the Bamberg Cathedral.

• Pope John VIII (872-882) was the only pope assassinated after having been bludgeoned to death in his sleep by an unknown assailant using a hammer, nine days before Christmas.

• The only pope to have met with a violent death as a result of an accident was Pope John XXI (1276-1277) when a remodeled wing of the Papal Palace at Viterbo, Italy crashed down on him while he was sleeping, only nine months into to his reign.

• The Apostolic Palace where the pope resides in Vatican City has more than 1,400 rooms, 12, 523 windows, nearly 1,000 flights of stairs and 20 court yards.

• More than 10 million tourists visit St. Peter's Basilica a year.

• The Vatican secret archives covers 16 miles of shelf space, while the Vatican Library contains over a million books, more than 100,000 maps and engravings and nearly 100,000 manuscripts.

• The first Vatican radio broadcast began on February 12, 1931 by Pope Pius XI.

• The number of citizens living in Vatican City numbers about 1,100, 95 percent of them comprised of males.

• The Vatican has maintained its own post office since the 14th century. It's estimated the Vatican Post Office handles about two million letters a year, more than six million post cards, and over 15,000 packages. It's even been reported the Vatican Post Office shows an annual profit, but this is mostly attributed to the selling of commemorative items, namely: stamps, coins and medals. Vatican City receives approximately 800 pounds a mail a day (25 bags).

• It takes approximately 60 minutes to walk around the walls that surround the state of Vatican City.

• The Vatican installed its first central telephone system in 1866 (invented by Gian Battisti Marzi) five years before the United States. It's been estimated the Vatican receives about 18,000 calls a day and as many as 25,000 a day during the Christmas season.

• There is one super market in Vatican City, which requires producing an identification card before entering.

• When asked one time how many actually work at the Vatican, Pope John XXIII jokingly replied, ``about half.'' In fact, the Vatican employs about 3,000.

• Under St. Peter's Basilica lies another church, the Sacred Grottos of the Vatican.

• Vatican license plates begin with the letters, S.C.V. (Stato Citta Vaticono-State of Vatican City) with numbers running from 1 to 142.

• There has been only one English pope, (Hadrian IV: 1154-1159) and only one Polish Pope (John Paul II: 1978-2005), while not a single pope has been Portuguese, Irish, Scandinavian, Slovak, Slovenian, Bohemian, Hungarian or American.

• There have been five popes who renounced the papal throne: Clement I in 97, Pontianus in 235, Benedict IX in 1045, Celestine V in 1294, and Gregory XII in 1415.

• Nine popes were deposed for various reasons: Silverius in 537, Martin I in 654, Romanus in 897, Leo V in 903, John XII in 963, Benedict V in 963, Leo VIII in 964, Sylvester III in 1046, Benedict IX in 1044 and 1048.

• Pope John II, the 56th pope, in 532 became the first pope (since St. Peter) to drop his baptismal name (born with the first name Mercurial or Mercury) because he didn't feel it was proper for a pope to be named after a Roman god. All subsequent popes, however, continued using their baptismal names until 1009 AD when Sergius IV (born Pietro Martino Buccaporci ) started the custom (maintained until this day) of adopting a new name.

``The Incredible Book of Vatican Facts and Papal Curiosities'' By Nino Lo Bello, ``The Popes: Histories and Secrets'' By Claudio Rendina

-Bill Lucey
February 19, 2013

This article was cross-posted from The Morning Delivery