24 popes, some good, in years leading up to first millennium.
We've had nine popes this century, with an average reign of 10.5 years. That is three years longer than the overall 7.3-year average of the 264 successors of St. Peter. These 20th century popes have been the only ones for well over a millennium who never had papal states to govern. (At one point the papacy claimed almost quarters of Italy.)
One 20th century pope has been canonized (Pius X), and three are under consideration for beatification (Pius XII, John XMII and Paul VI). Seventy-eight popes in all are reckoned as saints. In the past millennium only five have been so accounted.
In the 900s there were 24 popes, with an average reign of 4.16 years. None was canonized.
In addition, the 900s had three of the 37 illegally elected popes, or antipopes. The last, Felix V, was a saintly lay duke who abdicated in 1449 and was then created a pensioned cardinal. The 10th century trio was not so lucky. Christopher was strangled to death by papal order. John XVI was blinded and deposed Boniface VIl was assassinated; corpse was dragged through Rome, stripped, speared and trampled on by angry Romans. He had ordered the deaths of two legitimate popes.
This century had one Leo - who also ruled for 22 years in the 19th century - one Benedict, one John, one Paul, two John Pauls and three Piuses. The 900s had a single Agapitus, Anastasius, Gregory, Landus, Mariner, Sergius and Sylvester, three Leos, three Stephens, four Benedicts and seven Johns. Of the 264 vicars of Peter, none has ever taken or kept the name of an apostle except for the 23 Johns, the six Pauls and the two John Pauls.
The life expectancy was not high for popes of the time leading up to the first millennium. From 896 to 898 there were four popes; one ruled for 15 days, one 20. That's no record though: There were four popes in 1276.
In the 900s the overthrown Leo V lasted 30 days and was murdered in jail; the deposed Benedict V ruled for a month and a day; Benedict VI for six months - antipope Boniface had him strangled; the deposed Landus lasted six months and 11 days; Leo V, seven months; the deposed John XIV, nine months, after which he was jailed and died of starvation or poisoning.
In the 900s, youth was in. Chosen by his 16-year-old emperor cousin, Gregory V became pope at 24 and died three years later. John X confirmed the election of the 5-year-old son of a count to an archbishopric. John XII crowned a 12-year-old as Holy Roman Emperor. Earlier, John XI approved a 16-year-old son of an Eastern emperor as patriarch of Constantinople. He himself was elected when he was 21 or younger. Probably the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III by a 15-year-old girl, John M was still in his 20s when he died.
Sergius had the distinction of ordering, "out of pity," the murder of both the deposed Leo V and antipope Christopher, and of inaugurating the period known as "the pornocracy of the papacy," when easy women in powerful Roman families exerted sinister influence on popes and papal elections.
John XII was the illegitimate son of Rome's secular ruler, Alberic II. The latter, against all rules, made the papal electors swear, in the presence of Pope Agapitus, that they would elect his son after the death of the pope. Elected when he was about 20 and later charged with appalling misbehavior, John was finally deposed by a Roman synod. He fled, returned to power, fled again, and finally died of a stroke at age 24, reportedly in a married woman's bed.
Quite a few 10th century popes were not freely elected. In addition to Alberic's son, early in the century a number of popes were in effect imposed powerful Roman families like the Theophylacts and the Crescentii. At the end, John XIV was appointed by a Holy Roman emperor (age 28), as were Gregory V (the first German pope, 996) and Sylvester 11 (the first French pope, 999).
A flashback: In 891 Pope Formosus was elected, although - against tradition - he was already bishop elsewhere. Within in a year of his, his enemies persuaded his successor, Stephen VI/VII, to exhume his corpse and put it on trial in full papal regalia.
At this "cadaver synod," the dead pope was found guilty of various charges, including having already been a bishop. His acts were declared invalid - so the presiding pope, appointed a bishop by Formosus, did not have to worry about having been a bishop himself when elected pope. Formosus was condemned, his corpse stripped, his fingers of blessing hacked off and his body thrown in the Tiber. (A brave hermit retrieved and reburied it.)
The 10th century began under John IX, who annulled the cadaver synod of 897 but reaffirmed the age-old tradition that a bishop - considered already married to his diocese - could not be elected pope. Popes had most often been Roman deacons or priests chosen by representatives of the people and clergy of Rome, and non-Roman cardinals. One pope of the 900s was elected as a layman; another was the son of a bishop. (At least one early pope, Innocent I [401-141 was the son of a pope, Anastasius I [399-401]). The century ended with the election of an archbishop of Ravenna.
Two points are underscored by this brief review of a century of popes. First, the less political power and property popes hold or are preoccupied about, the more spiritual and morally edifying the popes are likely to be. Whatever their inevitable flaws, our century has witnessed popes eminent integrity and personal morality. Some, like John XXIII, have enjoyed what has been called "the invincible prestige of personal holiness."
Second: If, despite the absence of any such church teaching, you want to divinize the papacy by believing that God has a decisive role in the election of popes, and will see that they are and remain worthy and competent "vicars of Christ" - a title not known to have been used before AD. 495 - you had better stay blissfully uninformed about the history of the papacy, especially during the 900s.
No rabid anti-Catholic could have invented a more scandalous and chaotic century of popes than what 10th century reality provided, though the period saw some holy popes, like John the Good (XIII), Leo V and Benedict V. Benedict, regrettably, was deposed and had his papal staff broken over his prostrate head.
It can be argued that the narrowly defined doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 would allow a pope to be a heretic, so long as he did not freely and explicitly teach heresy in the name of the whole church. Even so, a number of cases are troubling: Pope (St.!) Marcellinus (296-304) was pressured into offering incense to the gods; Liberius (352-66) rejected part of the Nicene Creed; and John II (533-35) contradicted a previous pope (Hormisdas, 514-23) in a matter of doctrine. In 550, a synod of African bishops excommunicated Pope Vigilius for what they regarded as a betrayal of doctrine.
In any case, the doctrine of papal infallibility has nothing to do with personal sinlessness, or with intelligence, kindness or fairness in ordinary papal lives and decisions. This, despite the unbiblical and un-Catholic "papalatry" that prevails from clerics eager to please Rome-fearing bishops. Some of these episcopal problems, were less, likely before Rome claimed the right to name all bishops - a relatively recent development.
Great saints like Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden knew that each pope is a separate case in matters of holiness and wisdom. Denouncing him as a persecutor of Christ's sheep, Bridget turned against Innocent VI for his sternness. On the other hand, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was highly admired even by Martin Luther - whom the disastrous Leo X in 1519 considered making a cardinal in a political deal. (Leo had a cardinal strangled by a Muslim, because it was disrespectful for a Christian to do so.)
Matthew 16:18 has Jesus asserting that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church, but not that infernal powers would not furiously batter the church and shake it to the roots, nor that eminent church leaders would never provide an opening to such gates and enter through them personally.
Finally - and contrary to myths about widespread panic at the approach of the year 1000 - the first millennial pope seems mostly to have ignored what fuss there was. Sylvester's dazzling knowledge of mathematics, music and astronomy, however, was later attributed by legend to sorcery and a pact with the devil, which made him a proto-Faust.
Will John Paul II, who has already reigned more than twice the average number of papal years, be the second millennial pope? About to turn 75, he doesn't appear to be expecting his end or The End. Indeed, he has been making plans for millennial events. But at this precise point, 1,000 years ago, there were two more popes and an antipope to come before the arrival of the millennium. History is full of surprises.