The Pope is the title for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. The current Pope is Pope Francis. He has been the Pope since February 28, 2013, so his papacy has now lasted more than 10 years. A Pope’s tenure has a special name: a pontificate. In this list, you will find the 10 longest pontificates ever.
10. Urban VIII (1623 – 1644): 20 years, 11 months, and 24 days
We start with Pope Urban VIII, whose pontificate lasted from 1623 to 1644. He was born as Maffeo Barberini and was a remarkable figure as Pope. He was a patron of art and science, and his papal court at the Vatican attracted some of the greatest artists and thinkers of his time, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Galileo Galilei. Under his reign, some of the most iconic artworks in Rome were created, such as the baldachin over the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Pope Urban VIII is also infamous for his role in condemning Galileo Galilei’s scientific theories supporting the heliocentric model of the solar system. This led to Galileo’s condemnation by the Catholic church. Several family members of Urban became very wealthy thanks to him.
9. Leo I (440 – 461): 21 years, 1 month, and 13 days
Pope Leo I the Great, as the 45th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, was the first pope whose life story is known and about whom information can be found. His pontificate, which lasted a full 21 years, from 440 to 461 AD, was a period full of important events and theological developments. Leo I was a clever thinker and a skilled diplomat as Pope.
He steered the church during a crucial period when Christianity faced challenges and threats. For instance, Pope Leo I managed to meet Attila the Hun, the leader of the Huns during his pontificate, and convinced him not to plunder Rome. His diplomatic skill saved the city from destruction. What made Leo the Great even more interesting were his theological insights. He formulated the doctrine that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, a concept that remains central to the Christian faith to this day.
8. Sylvester I (314 – 335): 21 years, 11 months, and 1 day
The oldest dated pontificate on this list is that of Sylvester I. Sylvester I, whose birth date is unknown, was born in the small village of Sant’Angelo a Scala. His tenure lasted from January 314 until his death on December 31, 335. You may now realize that he died on New Year’s Eve, but a fun fact is that the holiday is named after him. Another name for New Year’s Eve is Sylvester’s Eve.
One of the most legendary stories associated with him is the so-called “Donation of Constantine,” a document that was later exposed as a forgery, but claimed that Emperor Constantine the Great donated large tracts of land to the Pope. This had significant political consequences for the Pope’s position in the medieval world.
7. Alexander III (1159 – 1181): 21 years, 11 months, and 24 days
We go back to the Middle Ages, where we find Pope Alexander III. Born Orlando Bandinelli in 1105, his pontificate lasted from 1159 until his death in 1181. One of the main events during the pontificate of Alexander III was his conflict with antipope Victor IV, which stemmed from a division within the Catholic church.
Alexander III managed to remain the legitimate pope and eventually gained the recognition of many ecclesiastical and secular leaders. A fun fact is that Alexander III, in the presence of the then King of France, Louis VII of France, laid the first stone of Notre-Dame in Paris in 1163.
6. Pius VII (1800 – 1823): 23 years, 5 months, and 7 days
Pope Pius VII, who reigned from 1800 to 1823 AD, was a notable pope who led the Catholic church during a turbulent period in history. His pontificate occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. One of the most important moments in the pontificate of Pope Pius VII was his conflict with Napoleon. He refused to accept Napoleon’s interference in church affairs and was therefore imprisoned by the French emperor.
This period of imprisonment, which lasted from 1809 to 1814, was a difficult time for the pope and the Catholic church. After his release in 1814, Pope Pius VII returned to Rome and worked on restoring the church and reinstating Catholic influence in Europe. He played an active role in the Congress of Vienna in 1815, where European powers redrew the political map of Europe after Napoleon’s defeat.
5. Adrian I (772 – 795): 23 years, 10 months, and 25 days
Pope Adrian I, also sometimes called Hadrian I, was the 95th pope. He was born around 700 in the city of Rome and died on December 25, 795. At the beginning of his pontificate, the territory of the popes was invaded by the king of the Lombards: Desiderius. Pope Adrian I then sought the help of Charlemagne (King of the Franks) and with a huge army, he managed to defeat the Lombards.
4. Pius VI (1775 – 1799): 24 years, 6 months, and 15 days
The fourth longest-reigning pope, Pius VI, is the predecessor of Pius VII on this list. His pontificate lasted from February 15, 1775, until his death in 1799. During his tenure, the transition from the ancien régime to modern times took place. One of the most notable events during his pontificate was his difficult relationship with the French revolutionary government led by Maximilien Robespierre and later Napoleon Bonaparte. He opposed the revolutionary reforms in the church and refused to take the oath of allegiance to the French republic. This led to his arrest and imprisonment by the French troops in 1798, making him the first pope in history to be captured by a foreign power. Pope Pius VI eventually died in exile in 1799 in Valence, France.
3. Leo XIII (1878–1903): 25 years, 5 months, and 1 day
We now move to a more recent pope. Pope Leo XIII was born on March 2, 1810, and was pope from 1878 to July 20, 1903. He led the church to the age of 93 years and is, to this day, the oldest reigning pope in history. Pope Leo XIII is best known for his important encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” issued in 1891. In this encyclical, he shared his vision on workers. He advocated for the rights of workers and called for fair wages and working conditions, and he emphasized the importance of solidarity and social justice.
He was also a patron of art and science and was known for his support of artists and scholars. A fun fact about Pope Leo XIII: he is the first pope of whom film footage has been made and whose voice has also been recorded.
2. John Paul II (1978-2005): 26 years, 5 months, and 17 days
The second longest-reigning pope in history is Pope John Paul II. He was born on May 18, 1920, as Karol Józef Wojtyła in the Polish town of Wadowice. He succeeded Pope John Paul I, who suddenly died after a particularly short pontificate of 33 days. His pontificate ultimately lasted from 1978 until his death in 2005, a period of 26 years! What distinguished Pope John Paul II from other popes was his charisma and his global travels. He visited more than 120 countries during his pontificate and met millions of people personally.
He was known for his involvement in numerous social issues, including the fight against communism in Eastern Europe. His support for trade unions in Poland is seen as a key factor in the eventual fall of the communist regime in Poland. As pope, he saw the importance of involving youth in the Church and started the World Youth Days to bring together hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world to celebrate faith.
1. Pius IX (1846 – 1878): 31 years, 7 months, and 23 days
Pope Pius IX, whose pontificate lasted a whopping 31 years, 7 months, and 23 days, is the longest-reigning pope in the history of the Catholic church. His long reign began in 1846 and ended in 1878. One of the most notable events during the pontificate of Pius IX was the proclamation of the dogma of the ‘Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary’ in 1854. This affirmed the Pope’s belief that Mary was conceived and born without sin, an important belief point for the Catholic church.
However, Pope Pius IX also faced serious challenges and conflicts, particularly with the rise of Italian nationalism and the movement to unite Italy. He lost large parts of the Papal States to the Italian unification and was eventually isolated in the Vatican. This brought an end to the worldly power of the pope during his pontificate.