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Popes: Longest Pontificates

Roman Catholicism and the Papacy


Below is a list of the 13 longest pontificates in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these popes reigned over the Catholic Church for an unusually long time. Today some believe that especially long papacies are bad for the Church because they prevent necessary change from happening when it should. The links in entry go to more extensive biographies of the popes in question and the numbers in parentheses indicate the position that individual has in a chronological list of all popes.

1. (#256) Pius IX: June 16, 1846 - February 7, 1878 (31 years, 7 months)
Still the one who holds the record as the longest reigning pope ever, Pius IX was responsible for calling the First Vatican Council - the one responsible for implementing the doctrine that popes are capable of being infallible when it comes to matters of faith and morals.

2. (#265) Pope John Paul II: October 16, 1978 - April 2, 2005
The currently reigning pope, John Paul II is also one of the longest reigning popes in the history of the Church. John Paul as tried to steera course between reform and tradition, often siding more strongly with the forces of tradition, much to the dismay of progressive Catholics.

3. (#257) Pope Leo XIII: : February 20, 1878 - July 20, 1903 (25 years)
Pope Leo XIII not only ushered the Church into the 20th century, he also tried to help improve the Church's transition into a modern world and modern cultures. He supported some democratic reforms and the rights of workers.

4. (#251) Pope Pius VI: February 15, 1775 - August 29, 1799 (24 years)
Pius VI was elected pope at a time when secular power was growing throughout Europe, edging aside the traditional powers of religious institutions. During his pontificate, Pius not only proved unable to stem this tide, but in fact it grew worse at an increasing pace.

5. (#96) Pope Adrian I: February 1, 772 - December 25, 795 (23 years, 10 months)
Adrian I was beset by numerous political problems, the most immediate of which was when Desiderius, king of the Lombards, invaded the Papal States right after Adrian was elected.

6. (#252) Pope Pius VII: March 14, 1800 - July 20, 1823 (23 years)
The first pope of the 19th century, Pius VII reinstated both the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books, brought back the Jesuits, and condemned the Protestant Bible Societies, making him the first modern pope to expressing condemn and fight against modern developments in politics, religion and philosophy.

7. (#171) Pope Alexander III: September 7, 1159 - August 30, 1181 (21 years)
Elected by only a minority of voting cardinals, Pope Alexander III had a lot of problems with antipopes and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

8. (#45) Pope Leo the Great: August or September 440 - November 10, 461 (21 years)
Pope Leo I became known as "the Great" because of the important role he played in the development of the doctrine of papal primacy and his significant political achievements.

9. (#236) Pope Urban VIII: August 6, 1623 - July 29, 1644 (20 years, 11 months)
Pope Urban VIII is known for a number of things, not least of which was his nepotism. Historians have even gone so far as to label his actions "reckless nepotism" because he went so much further than other popes. A brother and two nephews were made cardinals and many other members of his family were advanced in the Church hierarchy.

10. (#33) Pope Sylvester I: January 31, 314 - December 31, 335 (21 years, 11 months)
Not a great deal is known about Pope Sylvester I - the material in the Liber Pontificalis is mostly a record of gifts supposedly conferred by Constantine the Great to the Church. It is strange that the details of his reign would be so unknown even though the reign itself was relatively long. Apparently he didn't even attend the First Council of Nicea.

11. (#97) Pope Leo III: December 26, 795 - June 12, 816
Known as Charlemagne's Pope, Leo III engaged in a great deal of political maneuvering which caused the church and state in Europe to become more deeply intertwined than they had been before.

12. (#244) Pope Clement XI: November 23, 1700 - March 19, 1721 (20 years)
Pope Clement XI's reign was consumed by numerous political and religious problems. For one, he was faced with dissent from the Jansenist priests and in the papal bull Unigentius Dei Filius, published in September, 1713, Clement condemned Jansenism and excommunicated many of its followers.

13. (#261) Pope Pius XII: March 2, 1939 - October 9, 1958 (19 years, 7 months)
The papacy of Eugenio Pacelli occurred during the difficult era of World War II, and it is likely that even the best of popes would have had a troubling reign. Pope Pius XII may have exacerbated his problems, however, by failing to do enough to help the Jews who were suffering persecution.

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