For a Pope, Age Is Nothing but a Number

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Much ado has been made about the age of the newly elected Pope Francis I and how he well he’ll serve the Catholic Church and his duties at 76. Francis I ranks ninth on the list of oldest elected popes (on record). But, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver points out, the average reign of popes dating back to the first, St. Peter, is around seven years. If Pope Francis I serves that long, it means that he’d hold the seat of St. Peter until at least age 83. Silver goes on to note that statistics “does not account for modern improvements in health and medical science. Acknowledging that there are considerable lifestyle differences between an Argentinian pope and an average American citizen, the life expectancy for a 76-year-old American man is now about 10 additional years.” That means Francis I could be around for a long time.

Age is one thing, but effectiveness is another. As a result, we’ve put together a list of some of the oldest popes in history – and a few of the youngest – to show that when it comes to the papacy, you’re only as old, and devout, as you feel.

Pope Clement X, 1670

Elected: 79 years, 290 days

Died: 86

Years Served: 6

How’d it work out? Call it a case of papal peer pressure. Ironically, considering the hullaballoo given Pope Francis’s age, the oldest elected pope actually tried to refuse the job, citing his age and “protesting that he no longer had strength or memory.” The previous pontiff, Pope Clement IX, praised him before his death, and he got a near majority vote from the Cardinals to give him the job. He literally pointed out specific Cardinals who would be a better choice, but his peers had spoken.

As for his pontificate, Clement X installed Quebec’s first bishop, Blessed François de Laval, in recognition of the faith exhibited by the Catholic missionaries in the New World. Clement X was also notable for his constant desire to work for peace between warring European nations, clashing with would-be conquering monarchs in the process. He canonized six new saints, scrubbed the feet of weary pilgrims on many occasions and installed the fountains that remain in St. Peter’s Square. Not bad for a humble octogenarian who didn’t even want the job to begin with.

Pope Clement XII, 1730

Elected: 78 years, 100 days

Died: 87

Years Served: 9

How’d it work out? If you think the ruckus over Francis being elected pope is rough, imagine Pope Clement: two years older, blind, and bedridden. Yet, he still managed to get the papal coffers in order, attempted to bring Orthodox and Roman churches together, and was active in the building and restoration of ports, roads and major architectural projects, including Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain. 

Leo XIII, 1878

Elected: 67

Died: 93 years, 140 days

Years Served: 25 years, 150 days

How’d it work out? Pope Leo XIII wasn’t the oldest elected pope, but he lived longer than any other pontiff. He also holds the distinction of being the first pope born in the 19th century and the first to die in the 20th century. He’s also the first pope who was ever recorded on video and on a voice recorder. As far as his job as a pontiff, he receives generally favourable reviews, notable for trying to bring a level of modernity to the church and reconciling a relationship between the Church and science “so that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it and promote it with the fullest possible devotion (something some observers today would welcome, proving you don’t have to be a “young” pope to get the job done). He was also known to have fostered peaceful relations between many nations around the world and, on top of everything else, reportedly had a good sense of humour.

Pope Benedict IX, 1032

Elected: Approximately age 20, the first time

Died: 44

Years Served: Unknown

How’d it work out? From some of the oldest popes to two of the youngest, we start with Benedict IX. He was a young man (some believe as young as age 11) and the nephew of two former popes (Benedict VIII and John XIX) who, before you could say “nepotism,” found himself the leader of the Catholic Church. Variously described as “a disgrace to the Chair of Peter” to “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest … occupied the chair of Peter and profaned the sacred mysteries of religion by his insolent courses” (ouch!), it’s safe to say Benedict IX’s reigns weren’t very memorable.

We say “reigns” because he was pope three times. The first reign ended with him being overthrown and kicked out of Rome. He returned and overthrew his successor, reclaiming his papal title. Then he sold his seat as pope. Perhaps suffering from seller’s remorse, he once again returned to Rome and, upon the death of Clement II, reclaimed the throne. He was eventually run out of Rome by force, and the papacy went on without him. During his reigns, he became known for his depravity and not very pope-ish activities, such as being accused of having a hand in murder and, well, having multiple hands and other extremities involved in orgies at his papal home.

Pope John XII, 955

Elected: Approximately age 18

Died: Approximately age 27-34

Years Served: Approximately 9-16 years

How’d it work out? His road to the papacy was paved by his influential father, who helped secure him his seat. Evidently, he didn’t pay much attention to duties of the church, preferring to mingle in international politics. Also considered a prince of Rome, John XII lived more like a spoiled royal than a holy man. Sexy parties at the papal residence, murder, bribery, invoking pagan deities and even castration rank among the accusations levied at him. One account of his death claims, “John died whilst enjoying an adulterous sexual encounter outside Rome, either as the result of apoplexy or at the hands of an outraged husband.” Whether true of exaggeration, John XII’s reign proves, yet again, that it’s not the age of the pope but the desire to serve the church in a meaningful way that matters.