Popes With The Shortest Papal Reign In History

Pope Stephen II, technically the shortest-running pope of all time. Editorial credit: jorisvo / Shutterstock.com.
Pope Stephen II, technically the shortest-running pope of all time. Editorial credit: jorisvo / Shutterstock.com.

The pope (or the supreme pontiff) is the Bishop of the Diocese of Rome as well as the global Catholic Church’s ex officio leader. In addition to the two roles, the pope has been the head of the state of Vatican City in Italy since 1929. The jurisdiction of the pope is known as the Holy See even though the office of the pope is known as the papacy. The role of the pope as the Bishop of Rome stems from the belief that the pope succeeded Saint Peter.

To date, more than 250 popes have held office. Some popes served in the office for years, and others served for a few days or months while one was never confirmed. Assuming that an unconfirmed pope is a pope, then the shortest serving pope was known as Pope Stephen II who was the pope-elect for two days only between March 24 and March 26, 742. Using the list with only the confirmed popes, then the shortest serving pope was known as Pope Leo XI who served for 11 days between April 1 and April 12, 1605. Other short-serving popes include Pope Urban VII (12 days), Pope Marcellus II (20 days), Pope John Paul I (23 days), and Pope Pius II (26 days). The longest-serving pope was Saint Peter, who reigned for 37 years. 

Pope Stephen II

Pope-elect Stephen II was elected into office on March 24, 752, following the demise of Pope Zacharias who was in the office from 741 to 752. Before the death of Pope Zacharias, Pope-elect Stephen had the role of a cardinal-priest. The appointment as a cardinal-priest came with the titulus of San Crisogono (a titulus is a church that is assigned to a Cardinal Priest). After Pope Zacharias died, Stephen II became the pope-elect. Unfortunately, he died of a stroke two days later even before his consecration as the pope. For this reason, the Annuario Pontificio does not list him as a pope.

However, in the sixteenth century, the Vatican allowed the addition of his name to the Annuario Pontificio but removed it in 1961. The Annuario Pontificio is the official directory of the Catholic Church’s Holy See and is released annually. On October 1, 1975, canon law passed stating a man became the pope immediately after accepting his election to the papacy.

Pope Leo XI

Born Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici, Pope Leo XI was the official shortest serving pope in history. His reign lasted from April 1 to April 12, 1605, which was only 11 days in office. This pope, as the name suggests, hailed from the House of Medici in Florence, Italy. Nephew to Pope Leo X, Pope Leo XI was born to Francesca Salviati and Ottaviano. The father passed away while Pope Leo XI was a child while his mother passed away in the later stages of his life.

Medici’s life as a priest was always against the wishes of his mother since he was the family’s only son. To curtail his priest life, his mother sent him to places such as the Grand Duke of Tuscany and later on Rome in 1560. In his travels, he became a knight of San Stefano at the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The path to his priesthood cleared for him after the death of his mother in 1566. On July 22, 1567, he became ordained as a priest.

His career as a priest involved several roles such as the ambassador of Florence to Pope Pius V between 1569 and 1584. Later on, in 1573, he was appointed as the Bishop of Pistoia by Pope Gregory XIII. Shortly after, in 1574, he became the Archbishop of Florence and then, in 1698, he became the Prefect to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars.

Following the death of Pope Clement VIII, the cardinals met up to elect a new pope. Some of the leading candidates included Cesare Baronius and Robert Bellarmine. However, against the desires of King Philip III of Spain, a section led by Pietro Aldobrandini forced the election of Medici on April 1, 1605. Following his election, Medici decided to go by the name Pope Leo XI because of his uncle. At the time of his election, he was about 70 years old. His death was due to fatigue and cold during a ceremony at the Basilica of St John Lateran. Due to his short-lived papacy, he had the nickname of Papa Lampo, which translates to the Lightning Pope.

Pope Urban VII

This pope was born as Giovanni Battista Castagna in 1521 in Rome to a noble family. He was an academic man who had a doctorate in law studies. He worked as a lawyer until he joined the Roman Curia during the reign of Pope Julius III. On March 1, 1553, he became the Archbishop of Rossano, which is a position he held until his ordination shortly after on March 30, 1553.

Following the demise of Pope Sixtus V, Castagna became the pope with the name Pope Urban VII. As a pope, he had many initiatives such as the planet’s first ban on smoking.

Aside from the strict laws, he was known for giving to the less fortunate in society. For example, he took steps to lower the price of bread as well as placed restrictions on too much luxury for his staff. Public projects in this papacy also subsided under his rule.

Popes With The Shortest Papal Reign In History

RankPopeDates of Papal reignNumber of days of reign
1Pope Stephen II 24 March -26 March 7422
2Leo XI1 April – 12 April 160511
3Pope Urban VII15 – 27 September 159012
4Marcellus II 9 April – 1 May 155520
5John Paul 126 August – 28 September 197823
6Pius II22 September – 18 October 150326

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