Intriguing and Little-Known Facts About Popes and The Papacy

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest of the three major branches of Christianity, with nearly one billion Roman Catholics worldwide. The leader of the church, the Bishop of Rome or the pope, is one of the most powerful men alive. More than 260 people have held the office of the papacy since the times of St. Peter, who is traditionally viewed as the first pope. During the ensuing 2,000 years, the pope and the papacy have been a source of curiosity and fascination to the world.

Scandal, controversy, and conspiracy theories have always surrounded the church. Here, we’ll examine some interesting moments, odd traditions, and unusual facts about the pope and the papacy.

The Cadaver Synod: The Time a Pope Dug Up His Deceased Predecessor

One of the most macabre events in the history of the papacy occurred in 897. Pope Stephen VI made the claim that Pope Formosus (who had been the pontiff two leaders earlier) had committed perjury and had acceded to the papacy illegally. Stephen demanded that Formosus be put on trial for the accusations.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But there was one small hitch — Formosus had died a year earlier. Stephen didn’t see this as a problem. He had Formosus’ remains exhumed and brought to court. A deacon was selected to answer for Formosus, whose corpse was propped up on a throne during the trial. The former pontiff was deemed guilty and as a result, his papacy retroactively declared null. The papal vestments were torn off his body and three of his fingers were severed before he was buried in a graveyard for foreigners.