There have been more than 260 popes since St Peter. But it was not until Paul VI that a pope had visited all five continents and not perhaps until John Paul II that popes became modern-style celebrities with bestselling books about them, or by them, to match their growing global recognition and popularity.
Millions of pages have been put to paper about the Holy Fathers. Since 1888, the Herald has covered them all, from Pope John Paul 1, who lasted only 33 days, to Pius XI who reigned from 1922- 1939. In no particular order, here is our guide to some of the best – and most controversial – including fact and fiction. We consider popes past, present (both of them) and future.
Pope Joan, Donna Woolfolk Cross
The international bestseller and basis for the 2009 film, which inevitably caused a backlash from the Holy See. Woolfolk Cross fictionalises the myth of the lady pope. It vividly brings to life the guts and dark glories of the Dark Ages.
The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile, Edwin Mullins
Mullins explores the “Babylonian captivity” and the wider European transition from the middle ages to the Renaissance. Peeling back the onion layers of myth and legend, it presents an incisive history with a broad scope of known and not so well known characters.
Conclave Robert Harris
Set in the near future, Harris’s political thriller begins following the death of a pope. Taking place within just 72 hours, the narrative centres around the papal election amid factional divides and intrigue. Though the twists and turns are at times a stretch, Conclave is exceptionally well researched largely thanks to Harris gaining access inside the Vatican.
Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XI John Cornwell
Cornwell’s bestseller sets its sights on the Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII. Drawing on a wealth of resources, Cornwell explains how Pacelli refused to condemn the Nazis, in spite of being one of the first European leaders to know of the Final Solution. The book is critical of Pius during the war and argues that he didn’t do enough to stop the Holocaust, with his priority being a desire to increase the power of the papacy.
A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, Paul Kengor
Kengor dives into the relationship be- tween the two men credited with speed- ing up the conclusion of the Cold War. Presenting accounts of private meetings and getting behind the doors of the Oval Office, Vatican and CIA, Kengor explores this under-appreciated friendship.
The Popes: A History, John Julius Norwich
Principally a political and cultural history, The Popes avoids theology but covers the history of the church, from the rock on which it was founded to the revelations of sexual abuse that dogged Benedict XVI. Written in Norwich’s effortlessly knowledgeable style, The Popes is a light introduction to the story of the papacy.
Benedict XVI: A Life Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council (1927-1965), Peter Seewald
Seewald’s first instalment of his biography of the pope emeritus follows Ratzinger from his time in a POW camp through to his influential role at the Vatican Council. With close access to Benedict, the biography is unrivalled in source material on the pope emeritus. The second volume is set to follow in October.
Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3 Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI
One of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century, Ratzinger reacquaints us with the image of Christ in this personal and profound work. A powerful affirmation of Christ’s divinity, Jesus of Nazareth challenges historical scholar- ship that divides Jesus the man from Christ the Lord
Let Us Dream, Pope Francis
Writing in the time of Covid-19, co- authored by Austen Ivereigh, Francis reflects on what crises can teach us, how we can handle upheaval and the need for long lasting change in the aftermath. In a damning critique of profit-led economics, he calls for a recognition of the duty to the poor and marginalised and offers a plan for a better world after the pandemic.
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel Weigel’s study of Karol Józef Wojtyla explains how the late pope’s faith and convictions revitalised the papacy. Following John Paul II through the Cold War years, detailing his address to the UN and visits to all corners of the globe, Weigel determines what his legacy means for the church.