In 2,000 years of history, the Church has seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the papacy. Some popes, like Peter, Clement and Leo the Great, are now saints. Some aren’t.
In his new book “Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons,” Mike Aquilina takes on the ambitious task of sketching the lives of 12 successors of Peter (including Peter himself) and fitting those personalities into the history of the Church. It’s a tall order, and some parts work better than others, but Aquilina’s appealing writing style and fascinating content keep the pages turning — if only to answer the question: How did the Church ever survive this guy?
Aquilina’s short papal biographies start with St. Peter in the first century and end with Blessed John Paul II in the 21st. In each chapter, he not only describes the life of the each bishop of Rome, he places each one — pretty successfully — within the context of the Church and Western civilization. Aquilina is less successful when he describes the lives of some of the lesser-known popes. Information on St. Clement (the Church’s fourth pope), for example, is limited, and Aquilina relies heavily on sourced materials. The long passages can be difficult to get through, especially when compared with Aquilina’s candid, easy tone that pervades the rest of the book.
Where Aquilina really excels is in summarizing, drawing conclusions and connecting each papacy to the broader context of their contributions to the Church — which at the very least means he proved how they managed not to completely destroy it.
He draws the reader into the early days of Christianity, through the phases of the heretical Arianism and Monophysitism, battles with emperors and Huns, power struggles — all the while painting a picture of both the thoroughly saintly and thoroughly scandalous Vicars of Christ.
Because of the nature of the book, jumping from one pope to the next (which sometimes means jumping a span of 500 years) can feel disjointed, so Aquilina’s summaries at the end of each chapter help maintain cohesion.
Aquilina also grabs the reader at the start of each chapter, setting the stage as though he were writing a novel. He uses fiction-esque hooks to attract the attention of the reader — such as Pope Vigilius clinging to the columns of an altar in the Basilica of St. Peter in Constantinople while armed soldiers surround him. We don’t find out how the (bad) pope got there until 12 pages later.
The biggest takeaway from “Good Pope, Bad Pope,” though, isn’t the detailed and often dramatic lives of the 12 men in the spotlight.
Rather, it’s the glimpse the reader gets into the steadfast nature of the Church throughout its complex and dramatic 2,000-year history. This glimpse shows a lasting Church strong in Tradition that, with the help of papal saints and despite papal sinners, continues to be steadfast today.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.