How many popes have there been?

The number given by the Vatican is 265, including Pope Benedict XVI, the former German cardinal who was elected on April 19, 2005, to succeed John Paul II (1920–2005). (Other lists cite 266 popes; the discrepancy arises around Stephen II, who died in 752 after he was elected but before he could be consecrated.) Except for a few brief interruptions when the papacy was vacant, the Roman Catholic Church has been led by the pope as its visible head (and Jesus Christ as its invisible head) since Jesus said to the apostle Peter: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon / this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell / shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

The apostle Peter—who was earlier called Simon and is also called Simon Peter—became the leader of the Christian community after the crucifixion of Christ, and he made Jerusalem the headquarters of his preaching in Palestine. According to second-century sources, Peter traveled to Rome about 55 A.D. and became the city’s first bishop. During the persecution of Christians under Roman emperor Nero (37–68 A.D.), Peter was crucified on Vatican Hill in the year 64. He died a martyr and was canonized. St. Peter’s Church, the principal church of the Christian world, is said to have been built over Peter’s burial place. These events in Rome during St. Peter’s time long after gave the city special status within the church. It further established the site of the papal palace in Vatican City, which is an independent state that lies within the city of Rome. And the majority of popes (all but 18) have been Italian: When John Paul II, who was born in Poland, was elected pope in 1978, he was the first non-Italian pope since 1523.


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