A pontificate is the period of office of a pope. The current pope, Francis, is the 266th pope. Unlike most popes, who came from Italy, he is from Argentina. His pontificate has already lasted almost 9 years, much longer than the pontificates in this list of the shortest papal terms.
10. Benedict V and John Paul I (33 days)
On place 10 are two popes with a pontificate of 33 days. Benedict V was born in Rome and was pope from May 22, 964, until June 23, 964. He struggled with Pope Leo VIII for papal power. Eventually, Benedict V succeeded his predecessor John XII as pope and began his pontificate. However, his papal title was short-lived, as Emperor Otto I the Great did not approve of his appointment as pope. After 33 days, Benedict V was replaced by his great rival Leo VIII. From that moment, Benedict V was considered by some as an antipope. An antipope means that a person is not the ‘real’ pope but is seen as the real pope by a group of people. A group of people thus still saw Benedict V as the real pope and did not recognize Leo VIII as pope. Benedict V was taken to Germany and died on July 4, 965. He was first buried in the cathedral of Hamburg, but in 988 his remains were moved to Rome.
Pope John Paul I, born on October 17, 1912, as Albino Luciani, was pope from August 26, 1978, until his death on September 28, 1978. John Paul I was the successor of Paul VI and soon became known as ‘The Smiling Pope.’ He was the first pope with a double name and to this day the only pope who added the suffix I (the first) to his name. Albino Luciani was born in 1912, and there was great concern about his health at birth. Albino would have weak health all his life and also periods of severe pain. Albino grew up in a village in the Dolomites during a time of poverty, especially due to the consequences of World War I. Nevertheless, the future pope and his siblings had a happy childhood. Unlike many other popes, Albino Luciani was interested in non-religious literature and even literature by scientists like Darwin in his youth. Albino even questioned the authenticity of large parts of the Old Testament, which led to criticism. On the other hand, he had a wide interest in religious education and upbringing in faith.
His short pontificate lasted only 33 days, and on the night of September 28 to 29, 1978, he was found dead at a quarter to five. According to the doctor, the cause was an acute heart attack, but after his death, there were various speculations about his death. David Yallop tried to demonstrate that there were suspicious circumstances (such as poisoning). John Paul I was in favor of contraception, which went against the prevailing view within the Vatican, and therefore he would have been killed. In addition, Yallop indicated that John Paul I was against the malpractices within the Vatican banking system. Various people and even the Italian mafia were not pleased with this, which could have led to the death of John Paul I. However, Diego Lorenzi indicated that there could be no question of murder. It is not possible to approach the pope in his bedroom, as it is guarded day and night.
9. Leo XI and Pius III (27 days)
Pope Leo XI was born as Alessandro Ottaviano de ‘Medici on June 2, 1535, in Florence. He was the 232nd pope and his pontificate lasted only 27 days. His father was part of a less dominant branch of the powerful De Medici family in Florence. His mother was also part of the De Medici family. He grew up in Florence, lived in Rome for 15 years, and then went to France around 1600. His life ended in Rome in 1605 during his pontificate.
Pope Pius III, like so many popes, was born in Italy on May 29, 1439, in Siena. He was pope for only 27 days, from September 22 until his death on October 18, 1503. Before he was appointed pope, he was archbishop of Siena from 1460 until 1503. He was also a nephew of the earlier pope Pius II. Pius III was reform-minded, and this did not sit well with everyone. He died on October 18 from a leg ulcer, although some claim he died from poisoning. Either way, his short pontificate of 27 days earns a place on this list.
8. Damasus II (24 days)
Pope Damasus II, born as Poppo of Brixen, was born near Ering in Germany. His birth date is unknown, but he died in Italy on August 9, 1048. Damasus was elected pope in 1047, but it was not until July 17, 1048, that he actually became pope. Before becoming pope, he was bishop of Brixen. Damasus was proposed by Emperor Henry III, but like many popes on this list, there was a struggle for the papal chair. Damasus drove out the sitting pope, Benedict IX. The struggle continued, and after 24 days, the pontificate of Damasus II was over when he died. The pope is said to have died of malaria, but others say he was poisoned by his rival Benedict IX.
7. Marcellus II (22 days)
Pope Marcellus II was born as Marcello Cervini in Montepulciano in Italy on May 6, 1501. He was elected pope on April 9, 1555, but his pontificate lasted only 22 days. He died in Rome on May 1, 1555, probably from a kidney ailment. He is to this day the last pope who kept his baptismal name as pope name. Marcellus studied architecture, astronomy, and mathematics at the University of Siena. He was then bishop of Nicastro, and in 1539 he became a cardinal. After his education, Marcellus was librarian of the Vatican Library. In honor of Marcellus II, the Missa Papae Marcelli was composed.
6. Sisinnius (21 days)
When Pope Sisinnius was born is unknown. What we do know is that he was born in Syria as the son of a certain John. He was pope for only 21 days, namely from January 15, 708, until February 4, 708. His time as pope was of little significance. He did ordain a new bishop of Corsica. He also ordered the walls of Rome to be repaired, so that the city of Rome was ready for the siege by the Lombards and the Saracens. Sisinnius died in Rome on February 4, 708, and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. Unlike many other popes, he has not been beatified or canonized.
5. Theodorus II (20 days)
Pope Theodorus II was born in 840 in Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire) as the son of Patriarch Photius I. He became pope in December 897 and was pope for only 20 days. He was the 115th pope, but little is known about this pope due to his short pontificate. However, it is known that he rehabilitated Pope Formosus by recognizing his deeds and ordinations. At this time, there was a power struggle for the papal chair, and popes followed each other (whether by murder or deposition) at a rapid pace. The same happened to Formosus, who was embroiled in a struggle with Pope John VIII. A year after his death, on the order of Pope Stephen VI, the body of Formosus was exhumed to be tried during a mock trial (a so-called ‘cadaver synod’). Formosus’ official acts were declared invalid during this cadaver synod. The three fingers of his right hand with which he had performed ordinations were cut off, and his body was buried. Then the body was exhumed again and thrown into the Tiber River. Theodorus II rehabilitated Formosus, later exhumed the body again, and had it placed in St. Peter’s Church. How Theodorus died is unknown.
4. Celestine IV (17 days)
Pope Celestine IV was born as Goffredo Castiglione in Milan. His birth date is unknown, but he died on November 10, 1241, in Rome. He was the first pope to be elected in a conclave (i.e., in a meeting with cardinals). His name is Coelestinus or Caelestinus in Latin. Little is also known about his pontificate. He excommunicated Senator Matteo Rosso Orsini for misconduct. This senator had imprisoned ten cardinals and forced them to choose a new pope. One of the cardinals died in the process, and the others became ill. The successor of Celestine IV was Innocent IV.
3. Boniface VI (16 days)
The birth date of Pope Boniface VI is also unknown, but he was born in Rome. He became pope after the death of the aforementioned Pope Formosus. He was twice removed from the clergy, first as subdeacon and then as a priest, for immoral behavior. There are several explanations for why his pontificate lasted only 15 or 16 days. The first explanation is that he died of gout. The second explanation is that he was deposed at the urging of the supporters of the party of Spoleto and Guido of Spoleto. The third explanation is that he was murdered by his successor, the aforementioned controversial Pope Stephen VI. This Pope Stephen VI was known for the cadaver synod against Pope Formosus and for throwing the latter’s body into the Tiber. It was thus very restless within Rome/the Vatican at this time. Boniface VI died in 896 in Rome. The appointment of Boniface VI was declared invalid by Pope John IX in 898 during a synod he convened in Rome.
2. Urban VII (13 days)
Pope Urban VII was born as Giambattista Catagna in Rome on August 4, 1521. Urban VII was pope for only 13 days, making his pontificate the shortest in history. In 1553, he was archbishop of Rossano, and in 1583 he became a cardinal. He succeeded Sixtus V as pope on September 14. Within 13 days of his election, Urban VII died of malaria. Despite his short pontificate, Urban VII still managed to accomplish something. He is the one who introduced the world’s first known smoking ban in public spaces. He threatened to excommunicate anyone who used tobacco either in the colonnade or in the church. Urban VII died on September 27, 1590, in Rome and was succeeded by Gregory XIV.
1. Stephen II (0 days, died between his election and his inauguration)
Stephen II was born in Rome in 714 or 715. He was elected pope on March 23, 752, and his pontificate was to begin on March 25 of that year. However, he died on March 25 or 26, so he never began his task and thus was never pope. Officially, Urban VII is therefore the pope with the shortest pontificate, but in our opinion, Stephen II, because of his special story, also belongs in this list. Until 1961, Stephen II was still counted as a pope, but since that year he has been deleted from the official list because he was never pope. The result of this is that the numbering of successors with the same name must be adjusted. To avoid confusion, they are always mentioned with the old number in parentheses. Thus, his successor Stephen III is referred to as Pope Stephen II (III). Stephen II is to this day the only pope who died between his election and his inauguration.