It is the 7th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1878.
Real quick: Dan here. I thought I'd get you for a second here at the beginning of the show. Thank you for all your support and for telling friends and downloading, we recently hit our one-millionth download since we started this in 2019, and we hope for at least a million more. This means I keep making these so long as you keep listening. And to make listening even more enjoyable, you might notice some subtle changes over the coming weeks. Shows will be a little shorter and less uniform. Sometimes the whole show should focus on one person or idea. Sometimes you will get a complicated issue broken down, and sometimes you'll get different approaches, hopefully enjoyable, to understanding the long history of our church.
Today, we will come back to this date in 1878 as we rank the top popes of all time. Now, I get it. I'm a Protestant. The whole "1517" thing gives us away, but this doesn't mean that as a historian, I don't see Popes as some of the most consequential figures in history. Now, you might expect a list of Popes from a Protestant to pick on those incredibly naughty popes.
There was the one who had his predecessor's cadaver exhumed, dressed in papal regalia, stopped, and beheaded posthumously. There is no shortage of salacious stories about Popes but consider the sources. Before we had celebrities to tear down, Popes could do in a pinch.
But I've made a list of the top four Popes of all time from a historical perspective.
#4 is Leo the Great. You might remember him from the 5th century. He helped save Nicene Christology, shepherded the Roman church during Rome's collapse, and played peacemaker with Attila the Hun during the latter's spree through the Italian Peninsula. He's the first to be called "great," and he gets the four spot here on CHA.
#3 is Pope Paul III. He became Pope in 1539, making him the last of the Renaissance Popes and the first Counter-Reformation Pope. He called the Council of Trent, which was essential for Catholic unity in the wake of the Reformation. Furthermore, he confirmed the new Jesuit order and encouraged the arts, a cornerstone of the Post-Reformation Catholic Church.
#2 is another "Great," Gregory the Great, made Pope in 590 at the dawn of the Middle Ages. He was the first Medieval Pope and would become the model for future popes in his leadership and theological acumen. His legacy includes sending missionaries abroad, and his support of music led to the plainsong chant that bears his name.
It is hard to surpass Gregory the Great. Arguments could be made for rearranging these or adding others. But when it comes to the Papacy as we know it today, the modern Papacy, there is arguably no more important Pope than the man who just happens to have died, on this, the 7th of February in 1878, Pope Pius IX.
The pontificate of Pope Pius IX lasted from 1846 to 1878. This makes him the longest-reigning Pope in history. He was the Pope that called the first Vatican Council that established both Papal Infallibility and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He didn't "invent" these doctrines as they had been discussed and debated in the church for a long time. Papal Infallibility was pretty well established, and the council gave a definitive statement to consolidate various theories. The doctrine of the Immaculate conception was not as settled. Still, by teaching that Mary was conceived without sin, we see the Marian influence in Pius that would also mark the modern Catholic Church.
Pius was at the helm when the Papacy went modern, making him, to us moderns, the most important Pope. You may call it chronological snobbery. Maybe he gets a bump on this special day to pass Greg the Great for our top spot. Pope Pius IX died on the 7th of February in 1878.
The last word for today comes from a man who has given popes nightmares for centuries, Scourge of Popes, Martin Luther. This is from his "On the Freedom of the Christian."
"Our preaching does not stop with the law. That would lead to wounding without binding up, striking down and not healing, killing and not making alive, driving down to hell and not bringing back up, humbling and not exalting. Therefore, we must also preach grace and the promise of forgiveness — this is the means by which faith is awakened and properly taught. Without this word of grace, the law, contrition, penitence, and everything else are done and taught in vain."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who knows that the Immaculate Conception involves Mary and her mother but still wonders how Franco Harris fits into the story, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.