10 Facts about the Pope in Rome (2023)

Pope Francis, photo by Nacho Arteaga, sourced from Unsplash

Despite being one of the most photographed, recognizable and well-known figures in the contemporary era, people don’t generally seem to know many facts about Pope Francis, his role in the church or even on the pontiffs that came before him.

In this new post I tried to list some interesting facts about the Pope and his relationship with Rome: it has been difficult to list just 10 bits of trivia, as there are many odd, fascinating and just plain odd facts regarding the Vatican and its most famous resident!

1. How much does the Pope earn?

Two popes together: Pope Francis with Benedict XVI in 2013, photo by Mondarte, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

It may be a surprising fact for most people that the Pope receives a salary each month because of his role (which includes being the head of state of Vatican City).

However, when Pope Francis was elected, he decided to donate all his future wages to charity.

We do know that Francis’ predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, received a check of 2,500 Euros each month. Which is, incidentally, far less than what any Cardinal makes!

2. The Pope chooses a new name

How does the Pope choose his name? According to tradition, the new pontiff loses his “mortal name” and picks one of a predecessor or a saint who’s example he wants to follow.

With that in mind, John Paul II picked the name of John Paul I, who was only a Pope for a little over a month before dying mysteriously, Pope Francis went with Francis of Assisi, and Marcellus II… went for his own name, weirdly enough (he was a Marcello Cervini degli Spannocchi).

Popes can generally pick any name they want, but “Peter” is a big no–no: it is generally believed that Saint Peter will return before the Apocalypse, assuming the name Peter II.

3. The Pope helps the poor of Rome

Many services are available in Vatican City for the homeless, photo by Xavier Coiffic, sourced from Unsplash

Speaking of inspirations: Pope Francis shares with his influence Francis of Assisi a love for the poor and the outcast and has made both central to its ministry, way before being elected.

In 2018 alone the Vatican, through its Office of Papal Charities, has donated over 3.5 million Euros to pay for rents, utilities as well as clothing and food to those who couldn’t afford them.

Some services specifically in place for the poor in the Vatican include dorms, a soup kitchen, communal showers, a free clinic and a barbershop, which only opens on Mondays (and purposefully so, since Mondays is when all barbers are closed in Rome).

The Pope’s attitude and attention towards the homeless is the reason you may observe an increase in their number as you get closer to St. Peter’s Basilica.

4. See all the papal portraits at St. Paul

Want to see the faces of all Popes there ever were? You can do so by visiting the Basilica di San Paolo fuori le mura (Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls), by the “San Paolo” subway stop, the second largest in Rome after St. Peter’s – there you will find a portrait for all 266 pontiffs, including of course Pope Francis.

Two interesting facts are worth mentioning:

a) some popes look like each other. In a few cases they were actually related, but for the most part this is due to the artists having to guess what they looked like, because there is a lack of historical sources or other official portraits for some of the most ancient ones;

b) several slots have been left empty in order to host the portraits of future popes. What happens when those spaces are over? No one seems to know!

5. A “Young Pope” was actually a thing

If you go and stare at the papal portraits in San Paolo fuori le mura, you will notice that most pontiffs look old. However, there is no real age requirement for candidates. Therefore, several popes were actually just past their teenage years when they were chosen.

Case in point: Benedict IX and John XII were about 20 when they were picked as next pontiffs. So, the premise behind the famous TV show is not so preposterous, after all, but takes inspiration from actual events.

6. The mystery of Pope Joan

Being an enclave with such a long and intricate history, there is a lot of “mythology” surrounding the Vatican, which includes mysterious disappearances, and even murders.

Possibly the biggest legend to deal with the Catholic Church is that of Pope Joan. The story goes that no one realized that Pope John VIII was… a Joan, who presented herself as a man. Supposedly she was discovered only when she gave birth during a procession!

Jean de Mailly wrote about Joan as having lived in the 9th century, but it was 1250 when this Dominican monk spread the tale.

However, no one heard anything about her before it appeared in his chronicles, which is why it has been finally deemed as implausible in the 17th century. Be as it may, it appears that to avoid possible similar misunderstandings every cardinal considered for papacy had to, well, “demonstrate”, at least for the past few centuries, to be born a male!

7. Pope Leo X owned an elephant

A detail of a sketch featuring Hanno the elephant, image in the public domain, sourced from Google Art Project

Much has been written about former Pope Benedict XVI’s passion for cats (he routinely left his Vatican apartment at night to go feed his furry friends!), but he’s certainly not alone in this, as several pontiffs had their own pets.

The most famous and most bizarre of all of them is surely Hanno the Elephant, who was donated by King Manuel I of Portugal to then Pope Leo X. He was a white Asian elephant and roughly 4 years old when he arrived in Rome, where he got to stay in a specially built palazzo – now long gone – on Borgo Sant’Angelo, by the Vatican.

Hanno was the Pope’s favorite pet, although his life must have been miserable – spooked by the crowds who wanted to get a hold of him each time he got out of his mansion, he hurt his paws on the uneven roads of Rome, and suffered the cold winters in the city. Hanno died in 1516 while doctors were trying to treat his… constipation. Pope Leo was said to be inconsolable, and had him buried below St. Peter’s Basilica. The story of Hanno is told in the book “The Pope’s Elephant” by Silvio Bedini.

8. The Pope owns many mansions

The courtyard from the Quirinale Palace, photo by Franco Vannini, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, and as that his seat is in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

As a matter of fact, many popes used to reside there rather than in the Vatican and used to ride to and fro on a horse along what was known as Via Papalis (the Papal road), roughly corresponding with what is now known as Via del Governo Vecchio (on one end) and Via di San Giovanni in Laterano (on another).

It’s probably worth mentioning that St. Peter’s Basilica only became the most important church in the Catholic Church when St. John Lateran burned down (a second time!) in 1361.

Another splendid mansion belonging to the Pope is the Palazzo del Quirinale, now the seat of Italy’s President. It was officially handed over to the Italian Government in 1870. Other buildings formerly belonging to the Pope are all called “Papal Palace” and they’re located in Viterbo, Orvieto and in… Avignon, France.

On the other hand, another famous Papal Palace still belonging to the Vatican is in Castel Gandolfo, roughly 20 minutes south of Rome: it’s considered the pontiff’s summer residence.

9. Every Pope had a day job!

We are used to see the Pope only in connection to his religion, a spiritual presence which figure overlaps with his political role as a head of state. In spite of this fact, though, pontiffs – for the most part – had day jobs before being ordained and finally elected.

Julius II, for instance, was a swordsman, and he had a passion for weapons – so much so that he founded the Swiss Army.

Benedict XVI had been a soldier in the German Wehrmacht, during World War II, which no doubt influenced his decision to become a priest, while John Paul II worked as a playwright and as a worker in a chemical plant, among other roles.

Paul VI was briefly a journalist, Benedict XV studied as a lawyer and Francis was a bar bouncer in his native Argentina.

10. 22 Pope hearts are preserved in Rome!

The unassuming church is right by Trevi Fountain, photo by Geobia, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Lovers of eerie facts might like to know that a record number of 22 hearts from as many popes are preserved in the Church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, by the Trevi Fountain.

This place may seem just your regular Baroque oratory (a restoration from 1650, since it was really a medieval building), but in all actuality this served as the chapel for the Papal Quirinale palace that is uphill from it: which made the church into the perfect place to preserve these precious relics.

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