The pope, the supreme pontiff, the Bishop of Rome. Whatever you call him, the titles all mean the same thing: he’s the head of the Catholic Church. It makes sense that he would embody all of the goodwill, compassion, and politicking that comes with such a title.

The papacy has been alive for centuries so naturally, it has a wild history rife with remarkable achievements — and some growing pains. You might think you know religion like the back of your hand, but there’s definitely a fact or two (or twenty!) about the papacy you didn’t know on this list!

1. Paul VI  was the first pope to fly: In 1964, he traveled to the Holy Land. The most frequent flyer was former Pope John Paul II, having traveled over 725,000 miles and visited almost two-thirds of the world.

Alessandro Di Meo / Reuters

2. St. Pius was the first pope ever photographed: The image was taken around 1850. Prior to this, the church frowned on photography, preferring in its place the staid classical portraits of yore. Can’t argue with that, after all, oil paint can hide a myriad of sins.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

3. All popes used to travel by throne: Prior to 1978, the Bishop of Rome was carried via a silk-covered armchair called a “sedia gestatoria.” The throne sat atop two rods and was transported on the shoulders of twelve footmen. Popes used this form of transportation for nearly 1,000 years!

@hermeticus / Pinterest

4. A bird once got a man named pope: Believe it or not, one bishop was appointed Pope when a dove landed on his head! There wasn’t an official system in place used to elect a new pope at the time, so when a dove landed on Bishop Anteros, he was appointed based on pure divinity.

Catholic Saints

5. To be the pope you must be male and Catholic: There are only two prerequisites to be elected pope in the modern era: be a male and be baptized by the Catholic Church. Still, a non-cardinal hasn’t been elected since 1378 — Urban VI — and his papacy faced a lot of conflict.

Geneva / Vatican City

6. Popes almost never resign: The previous pope, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he would be resigning from his position in 2013. Traditionally, popes hold their position until their death. The previous two willing resignations were by Gregory XII (1415) and Celestine V (1294).

Vatican Media

7. Papal elections can go on for years: The College of Cardinals assembles in a meeting called the conclave to discuss the next papal election. This meeting can take anywhere from days to years. During this process, the College of Cardinals is not allowed to leave the Vatican. A two-thirds majority vote is needed.

Zade Rosenthal

8. White smoke means a new pope: While the conclave is in session, the College of Cardinals is only allowed to communicate with the world via the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. With each indecisive vote they burn the ballots using a chemical that burns black smoke; when they have come to a decision, the smoke burns white to signify a new pope has been selected.

Johannes Eisele

9. A dead pope can still be put on trial: In 897, Pope Stephen VI accused former Pope Formosus of ascending to the papacy illegally, so a trial was held. Formosus was dead, so they dug up his body and put him on trial. He was found guilty, stripped of his title and robes, and re-buried in a foreign graveyard.

Jean Paul Laurens

10. The Vatican is the smallest country in the world: Founded as a city-state in 1929, Vatican City is only 110 acres. In other words, Central Park in New York City is significantly larger than this holy home.

World Travel Guide

11. There’s a dress code to meet the pope: Those lucky enough to meet the pope have to follow a set of attire standards. If they’re a man, they should wear a black coat with tails or a black suit and conservative tie. If they’re a woman, they should wear a long black, lace dress with long sleeves and a high collar with a black veil. 

Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons

12. Certain women can wear white in his presence: A woman considered “Le privilège du blanc” (the privileged of the white) can wear white. To qualify, they must be a reigning royal or married to a Catholic monarch. Only seven women qualify: the Queen of Spain, the Queen of Belgium, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, the Princess of Monaco, the Princess of Naples, the Queen of Spain, and the Queen of the Belgians.

Gaétan Luci / Palais Princier de Monaco

13. The pope flies commercial: When the pope flies, he flies first class usually on Alitalia airlines. The flight is always referred to as “Shepherd One,” with the flight number “AZ4000.” It’s not a particularly fancy flight, but the airline will usually provide embroidered cloth headrests with the papal seal. 

CNS photo / L’Osservatore Romano

14. There are secret passages in the Vatican: There is an escape route called the Passetti di Borgo, built in 1277. It connects the Vatican to a fortified castle across the Tiber River. In 1527, Pope Clement VII fled during an attack on Rome. Many of his men perished in the evacuation, but he survived thanks to this passage.

Through Eternity Tours

15. The pope travels via the stylish “Popemobile” during public events: There are several different models based on the level of security needed. Some are enclosed in bulletproof glass, while some just have a front protective shield. 


16. The largest gathering of heads of the state was for Pope John Paul II’s funeral: In attendance were four sitting kings, five queens, 70+ prime ministers and presidents, and dozens of religious leaders. It is believed that about four million people gathered in Rome to mourn. 

Armando Arorizo

17. Popes are generally older when appointed: Pope Francis, for instance, began his papacy at age 76. Still, in the past, there have been several very young appointed popes: Pope Benedict IX, 20-years-old (1032), Pope John XI, 20-years-old (931), and Pope Gregory V, 24-years-old (996).

18. The current pope is a reformer: Many believed Pope Francis is the breath of fresh air the Catholic Church needed during a time of scandal. He is known for his compassion and love for people. No disease or disability deters him from spreading kindness.

Daniel Ibanez / CNA

19. Mercurius was the first pope to change his name in 1555: He believed his papacy name should reflect a Catholic god, not a pagan god, so he changed it to John II. Pope John Paul I chose to combine the names of two great popes who lead the Catholic Church through times of turmoil.

Wikimedia Commons

20. The longest-sitting pope was the first pope, St. Peter: His papacy lasted 35 years from Jesus’ death until his own death, while Pope Urban VII held his position for just 12 days before dying from malaria.

Christian Research Institute