Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Shortest 'Papacy'

It has not been unusual for America to have two presidents in a single calendar year.

It has happened whenever an election has produced a new president — because either the incumbent president did not run or the incumbent president was defeated. When that has happened, America has begun Inaugural Day (for many years, March 4 — now January 20) with one president and ended it with a different one.

Additionally, there have been eight times when a president has died in office — and once when a president has resigned. On those occasions, the vice president has succeeded the president. Most of the time, the president who died (or resigned) had been in office for more than a year.

Only twice in American history has this nation had three presidents in a single calendar year. On both occasions, a duly elected president–elect has taken the oath of office and then died before the calendar year ended. In those years, America has had the president who was in office when the year began, then the president–elect was sworn in, and then the new president died in office within the same calendar year and the vice president succeeded him.

Of course, the American presidency has only existed for 220 years, and there have been 43 occupants of that office.

The papacy, on the other hand, has been around much longer — nearly 2,000 years — and there have been more than 250 people who have held that title. And, while there have been popes who reigned for decades, others have been in office for a few weeks, sometimes only days.

Consequently, there have been times when the Roman Catholic church has had at least three popes in the same year.

I'm not Catholic, but in some ways the pope transcends religion. He is a global figure, and his authority is at least perceived as political as well as religious. Having been raised Protestant, I can't say that I know the history of the papacy, but my understanding is that, in the early days, a pope enjoyed political as well as spiritual authority. Today, the pope's authority is mostly spiritual in nature, but what he has to say about the issues of the day still commands a lot of attention from non–Catholics as well as Catholics.

Once elected by the College of Cardinals, a pope reigns until his death. He does have the option of resigning, but Gregory XII was the last to exercise that right more than 600 years ago.

After his death in 2005, John Paul II was said to have considered resigning when he neared his 80th birthday in 2000, but he clearly did not do so. When he died, his reign had lasted more than 26 years. But even if he had been alive for the last five years, his reign still would not match that of Pius IX, who reigned longer than any other pope — excluding St. Peter, who is considered the first pope even though the title of pope did not exist in his lifetime.

There haven't been many popes in my life, but there was one year — 1978 — when there were three popes.

In that year, Pope John Paul I succeeded Paul VI, then served just over a month before dying suddenly. He was succeeded by John Paul II, who was the only pope that most people under 35 knew until Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul II.

John Paul I's papacy seemed short — and it was — but the shortest papacy wasn't even a papacy in the traditional sense.

On this day in 752, a priest of Rome named Stephen was elected to succeed Pope Zachary, but Stephen died of a stroke a few days later — before being ordained a bishop.

I don't know much about Stephen — except that he is remembered in history as Pope–elect Stephen — and I don't know if he dreamed of becoming pope, but if he did, his life and death are reminders that, even if you believe that you have reached the pinnacle of your profession, it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.

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