You have 4 free member-only stories remaining for the month. Subscribe now for unlimited access

A Review of ‘Ten Popes Who Shook the World’

If you are interested in the history of the popes of the Catholic Church, the reading options can be daunting, and not just because there have been 266 of them over the past 2,000 years. The sheer size of the volumes are enough to give the most committed reader pause: George Weigel’s definitive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, runs an eye-watering 1,056 pages, and Peter Seewald’s two-volume Benedict XVI: A Life is even longer at 1,088 pages. Elisabetta Pique’s 2015 biography, Pope Francis: Life and Revolution, seems tiny by comparison at 312 pages, though it only covers the first year of his papacy.

There are also books covering the entire history of the papacy, but they tend to either be heavy on illustrations and light on information or bigger than a cinder block. So what do you do if you want to dip your toe into this massive subject without jumping in headfirst? You start with Ten Popes Who Shook the World by Eamon Duffy.

As you can tell from the title, this is neither a biography of one pope nor a survey of all of them. Rather, it’s a brief overview of ten Duffy chose as his picks for the most notable over the past 2,000 years. It’s a slim volume when compared to the others I’ve mentioned (only 160 pages), but Duffy doesn’t waste a single word. It’s the best overview of the papacy and some of its key players I’ve found, and if you enjoy Duffy’s writing style (which I did) you can move on to his much larger work, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (the newest edition covers all of the popes from St. Peter to Pope Francis and runs a reasonable 500 pages).

Some might argue that Duffy left out some important popes, but choosing only ten must have been as hard as picking the ten best Bruce Springsteen songs. He has chosen ten from pivotal moments in the history of the Church and the world, among them St. Peter (the first pope), Pope Leo the Great (who stopped Attila the Hun from sacking Rome), Pope Paul III (a key figure during the Reformation), and Pope John Paul II (one of the key figures of the 20th century).

The book is a fast read, and some of these you will know already (like John Paul II) while you may never have heard of others (like Gregory VII and Innocent III). All ten are worth knowing, because each in his own way did indeed shake the world.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Book Reviews


  1. I am looking for books on Saints. I did read about Saint Valentine, and there were many of them with the same name. That led me to Saint Valentina who gave support to Saint Helen (if I got the name right)