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Aging in the See of Peter
Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Credit: Vatican Media.

When pope emeritus Benedict XVI died at the age of 95, he was the second oldest man to have served in the chair of St. Peter, according to the record books.

But while Benedict was aged by papal standards, he’s not alone among modern popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis are all among the 14 oldest popes in the Church’s history — with almost all serving to at least 85, a full decade older than the retirement age for diocesan bishops.

Indeed, at 86, Pope Francis is already among the 10 oldest popes in the Church’s history.  

Modern medicine has ushered in an era of longer life expectancies. As the first pope to resign his office in almost 600 years, Benedict represented one possible response to the challenges created by an increasingly global Catholicism, combined with the effect of increasing life expectancy, on an office which is traditionally held until death.

How has the age of popes at their installation and at their death changed through history? The Pillar looks at the numbers.

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By the numbers

First, some preliminaries: Through the centuries, the average age of popes at the time of their election has increased.

During the first 1,000 years of the Church’s history, the average age of popes at the time of their election was just 52, but the average pope died at 58, so the average papal reign was only six years.

One contributing factor, of course, was that among the first 31 popes, 27 were martyred. But since the birth dates are not recorded for many popes before the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in 313, most of these do not count towards our average anyway, which is based only on those popes for whom (mostly) clear historical information is available.

In the second millennium, the popes who died between 1000 and 1499 lived to an average age of 63, but the average age at election had increased to 58, so the average papacy actually decreased to five years.

Popes who died between 1500 and 1799 lived to an average age of 72, while their average age at election increased to 64, with the result that the average papacy increased to eight years.

And in the modern era, popes who died between 1800 and 2000 lived to an average age of 78, while the average age at election remained the same, so that the average length of a papacy increased to 14 years.

By comparison, the two popes who have died in the 21st century – Pope St. John Paul II who died at the age of 84 and Pope Benedict XVI who resigned his office at the age of 85 and died at the age of 95 – have been much longer lived. And Pope Francis, currently 86, is already among the ten oldest reigning popes in all of history.

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The young popes

John XII, looking neither as young nor as worldly as his biography suggests

The very youngest man ever elected to the papacy got the job near the end of the first millennium - but by all accounts, he wasn't very good at it.

Pope John XII was elected to the papacy in December of 955 A.D. There is some disagreement about the year of his birth, but the available records indicate that John was born somewhere between 930 and 937.

This means that John - born Octavian - may have been as young as 18 when elected pope. Or he might have been for more seasoned, and elected to the papacy at the ripe old age of 25.

John’s papacy was not noted for its holiness, and despite being elevated to the papacy at such a young age, he reigned only eight years before dying.

One account says John was thrown from a window by the jealous husband of a papal mistress.  Other accounts say that John died of a stroke suffered in flagrante delicto while carrying on with said mistress.

Either way, his death was in 964. John was somewhere between 27 and 34 years old when he died.

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The other candidate for the youngest pope ruled just after the turn of the millennium. His reign was also notorious.

Like Benedict XVI, Benedict IX resigned the papacy. He actually did it twice. But Benedict XVI probably didn't have this guy in mind when he chose his papal name.

Born in 1012, Pope Benedict IX was first elected pope in 1032 at the age of 20.

That’s right, first elected pope. Benedict IX bore the dubious distinction of holding the papacy twice, and trying to claim it a couple more times after that.

He first reigned as pope from 1032 to 1044, after which he was deposed and replaced by Sylvester III. But in 1045, Benedict had Sylvester expelled and was himself reelected pope.  

No sooner was he elected, however, then Benedict sold the papacy to Gregory VI and resigned – for the second time.  

Soon after Gregory attempted a reform agenda in Rome, but Benedict decided he'd actually liked being pope, so he began to claim the See of Peter for himself.

Still, in 1046, Benedict was deposed by the Synod of Sutri, Gregory resigned, and Clement XII become pope.

But Benedict wasn’t finished. When Clement died the next year, Benedict seized the Lateran Palace and reasserted his claim to the papacy. He was driven out by soldiers the next year, and was excommunicated on simony charges in 1049.  

Benedict died seven years later in 1055 at the age of 43.

As it happens, Benedict was  a distant cousin of John XII and several other popes and bishops of the same era, as the papacy was frequently entwined with the Italian nobility of the era.

Benedict IX was, as you can imagine, not noted for his holiness. A later pope, Victor III wrote of Benedict that: “His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

The centenarian pope

Pope Agatho, looking pretty good for having been elected at the age of 101.

The oldest pope, by far, was Pope St. Agatho, who became pope in 678 A.D. at the advanced age of 101. He reigned three years, successfully overseeing the Third Council of Constantinople, in which the Monothelite heresy was suppressed.

After Agatho, the second oldest popes were Leo XIII who died in 1903 at the age of 93 and Celestine III who died in 1198 at the age of 91 or 92 (the exact date of his birth is unclear.)

The record book

Only 14 popes have ever lived to be 85, and it is significant that the current pope and the previous two are among them. Indeed, at 86, Pope Francis has already earned a spot in history as one of the 10 oldest reigning popes to date.

Some argue that the increasingly administrative demands of a centralized global church will increasingly require the popes follow the lead of Benedict XVI and retire when they are no longer able to meet the demands of he office.  Others suggest that the requirements and expectations of the papal office should must be molded to fit the natural realities of old age in a world where the expected lifespan has risen so high.

Among the issues facing Pope Francis in the coming weeks and years will be the question of how to negotiate old age, and set the mold for his successors in the world they too will face.