Virginia Barton

From crucifixion to Wojtyla

Catholic Herald, 11 April 1986  


Review: The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J.N.D. Kelly (OUP, £12.95) 


2021260Thomas Babington Macauley wrote that “the proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of Supreme Pontiffs.” This comes as no surprise to those who believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of Peter.

But it is amazing to consider that the papacy has been in existence for nearly 2000 years, the oldest of all western institutions, and that it’s beginning marks the division between the old history and the new.

From Giotto’s St. Peter on the front cover to John Paul II, in characteristic stance on the back, this book is a treasure house of fact, anecdote and information. Strictly speaking it’s not a dictionary as it’s arranged chronologically rather than alphabetically , but I would be the last to cavil at this; indeed this format makes it eminently readable.

Anyway, there’s an alphabetical list of the Popes at the beginning and an excellent index so cross-reference is easy. Being chronologically arranged, it sets the historical context for the papal biographies so that one carries on reading irresistably. I guarantee that if, you look up, let us say, Clement VII who excommunicated Henry VIII, you won’t be able to resist reading both forward and aft.

Canon Kelly, until 1979 Principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, and ex-chairman of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Roman Catholic Relations, has written short and liveIy biographies of each Pope – and Antipope. (I bet you the · didn’t know there were 39 of these!) The biographical sketches provide details, where available, of each Pontiff’s family background and career, as well as their major activities after election. These are necessarily brief.

John Paul II’s entry, for example, contains all the salient facts about his early life and career, details of four encyclicals, an account of the assassination attempt, descriptions of his travels and reactions to them, and an outline of his teaching. A comprehensive review of his life so far. A little surprising then, that the bibliography for this particular Pope is rather scanty considering how much has been written about and by him.

There are bibliographies after every entry, useful for further research and reference, most including primary sources. Canon Kelly is scrupulous in presenting an unbiased perspective on his many varied subjects. Perhaps this cool detachment accounts for the emphasis on the secular at the expense of the spiritual. For example the portrait of St. Peter seemed to me to be that of a mere man rather than a godly one.

This papal Who’s Who undoubtedly provides a most useful work of reference quite apart from being a good read. As the author says in his introduction, it’s almost impossible to find a one-volume handbook in English containing systematic accounts of those who have been, or who claimed to be, popes. Fifty years ago I imagine, such a book would have had only a minority appeal. It is interesting, to reflect that OUP, who are, one presumes, in the business to make money, judge that the time is ripe for such a publication.

I’m sure they’re right. Pope John XXIII must be largely responsible for the increasing curiosity and public interest in the See Of Peter and the style and charisma of Pope John Paul II ensure that the Pope and the papacy are frequently front-page news. His 270 odd predecessors alternately fascinate, repel and inspire in this dictionary which is a must for every serious bookshelf.



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