10 Things You May Have Wondered About the Pope

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Leading the worldwide Catholic church, and its more than 1 billion members, is certainly a big job. The office of Pope brings with it a good deal of pomp, history and ceremony. But what about the day-to-day aspects of the papacy? Below, we answer some burning (cough, cough) questions about some of the less well-known aspects of the job…

10. Why does the Pope wear red shoes (sometimes)?

The Wicked Witch of the West isn’t the only one with a thing for ruby slippers. Most Popes throughout history have also sported red shoes. The Vatican claims that the crimson footwear memorializes the blood of Christian martyrs. But red shoes were a Roman status symbol well before the birth of Jesus, when only aristocrats could afford the expensive Phoenician dye needed to produce the vivid color. For a time, red shoes could only be worn by the Emperor and his family. After the advent of Christianity, Cardinals and the Pope also adopted red vestments, and the red Papal shoes are a carryover from this time. For a while, papal shoes got even splashier, bedecked with large gold crosses or buckles for parishioners to kiss. Pope Paul XVI put a stop to the buckles, and the foot-smooching in the ’60s, but retained the red shoes.

Pope John Paul II ditched the red shoes, preferring brown ones, but Pope Benedict XVI brought them back in a big way. His snazzy red leather loafers earned him the title “Prada Pope,” part of a more-ornate papal look that spurred Esquire to name him the 2007 “Accessorizer of the Year.” Seeking to avoid the appearance of frivolity, the Vatican quickly refuted rumors that the loafers came from the Italian fashion house. When Pope Francis was elected as pontiff, his fashion choices also made headlines, but for the opposite reason. The ornate red shoes were nowhere to be seen; Pope Francis instead went with sturdy black leather shoes with orthotics, something more common in the wardrobe of an everyday grandpa than in that of the global leader of the Catholic Church.

9. What’s the Pope’s salary?

It’s a good thing the job comes with a lot of benefits, including unparalleled spiritual fulfillment, because Popes aren’t exactly rolling in the dough. You can’t exactly pull up the Pope’s salary on glassdoor.com, but the Vatican has confirmed that the Pope is not paid a salary. However, the Holy See (Vatican) has a budget, raised largely through its museums and banks, that covers all the day-to-day financial needs (food, travel, clothing, other living expenses) of the Pope, as well as the costs of Vatican upkeep and staff.

Since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013, the first Pope to do so in about 600 years, we now know that there is salary; or rather, a pension, for the role of ex-Pope. Upon renouncing the office, Benedict XVI went from earning no money, to collecting a monthly pension of 2,500 euros. The Catholic Church also covers his living expenses, providing him with rent-free living and services like housekeeping.

While Popes who keep the job their whole lives don’t get paid during their lifetimes, they do collect some money after death. According to tradition, bags containing silver, gold, and copper coins, one for each year of tenure as Pope, are placed alongside the deceased Pope in his casket. For Pope John Paul II, the coins’ total was about 100 euros, a nominal sum for being the spiritual leader of more than 1 billion Catholics, but, as Popes would know better than most, you can’t take it with you.

8. Can the Pope have pets?

Leaders across the globe have famously brought their pets to their official residences—from Russian President Putin’s black lab Koni (who reportedly scared German Chancellor Merkel when the dog accompanied him to a meeting) to Winston Churchill’s cat, who is rumored to have attended WWII Cabinet meetings with him, to President Obama’s Portuguese water dogs, whose antics are well-documented by the White House Press Corps. Now, try to picture any similar stories involving pets of a Pope. If you’re drawing a blank, it’s because the Pope isn’t allowed to have pets in the Vatican.

It’s not just the Pope who is restricted from the company of an animal companion; no pets are allowed in the Vatican apartments, though an American archbishop asserts that, “one cardinal has a dog and everyone in Rome knows it.” This prohibition on papal pets hasn’t always been in place; Pope Leo XII reportedly kept a dog and a cat, and, more recently, Pope Pius XII had a canary. However, more contemporary Popes haven’t been as willing to bend these earthly restrictions on pets. When Benedict XVI, a well-known animal lover, became Pope, his beloved kitty, Chico, was left in the care of the housekeeper of his private residence. One perk of Benedict’s decision to step down as Pope is that he can once again have cats in his home.

7. Can the Pope grow a beard?

Beards have become an increasingly mainstream look for men from all walks of life. While some suggest that this hipster-driven trend for all manner of facial hair has peaked, others argue that the scruff is here to stay. In either case, there’s one place this hirsute look hasn’t caught on—the Papal chambers. Pope Innocent XII, the last Pope to rock a beard, died in 1700. Since then, all subsequent Popes have opted for a clean-shaven visage.

Unfortunately for hipsters hoping to see a Pope in their own image, we are unlikely to see the Pope sporting any kind of facial hair in the future. Roman Canon tradition encourages clean-shaven clergy for a very practical reason—so that facial hair doesn’t disrespect the blood of Christ by grazing the communion wine. This tradition meant that beards mainly became the province of Eastern rite clergy (who are encouraged to grow beards) and an Eastern cardinal is unlikely to be chosen as Pope.

While no formal rules would prevent the Pope from growing a beard after his elevation to the role, the symbolism some might attribute to the decision to do so would likely provide the motivation for any reasonable pontiff to pick up the razor. However, a bearded Pope isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility. American Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who retains the beard and robes that characterize his Capuchin religious order, was considered a strong possibility for the Pope role in 2013, though he ultimately lost out to Pope Francis.

6. Do Popes ever go on vacation?

Being spiritual leader to the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics is more than a full-time job, a very demanding vocation for anyone, let alone the senior citizens who are generally selected for the role. So how does the Pope kick back and relax when the job gets to be too much? Popes don’t take typical vacations—don’t expect to see Pope Francis downing a margarita on the beach while diving into a trashy novel—but they do take time off for some R&R.

Like many well-heeled NYC residents who escape to the Hamptons on summer weekends, the Pope has a handy vacation house—Castel Gandolfo, a swanky summer residence in the hills about 25 km from the Vatican. Popes have used Castel Gandolfo to escape Rome’s summer heat for almost 400 years. Pope John Paul II was particularly partial to the palace, even installing a pool where he could swim laps during his sojourns there. Popes have generally used their vacation time as you would expect—reading, praying, and composing religious texts, though Pope John Paul II, known as one of history’s sportier Popes, also found time for hiking, skiing, and playing tennis. In contrast, Pope Francis has preferred to “staycation” at the Vatican, working on his own religious writings, while opening Castel Gandolfo to the public, instead of using it as a private retreat.

5. What happens after a Pope dies?

Obviously, the passing of one Pope means that the cardinals gather at the Vatican for a conclave to select a new Pope. But what happens before that can happen?

First (in modern times), a doctor certifies that the pontiff is dead, and a Latin pronouncement is made. The Camerlengo, a cardinal who serves as the administrative head of the Holy See, is then summoned to confirm the Pope’s death, which he does through a series of rituals. First, the deceased’s baptismal name is called out 3 times. If no response, the pontiff is struck on the forehead with a small silver hammer that bears his coat of arms or the face may be simply covered with a veil. There is controversy about whether the silver hammer phase of the process is a myth, a custom that has fallen out of disuse, or an ongoing tradition.

Either way, once the Camerlengo is sure that the Pope is dead, he destroys the Ring of the Fisherman, worn by the Pope and historically used to seal Papal correspondence, as well as any other Papal seals. Then, the Pope’s quarters are sealed, though in the case of Pope Pius XII, Mother Pascalina, a nun who had been the Pope’s long-trusted advisor, spirited away his pet canary and personal papers (which she said she burned based on his previous instructions), before either could be reviewed by Vatican administrators. After the sealing of the Papal chambers, public and diplomatic announcements of the death (including the ringing of the bells at St. Peter’s) are made and funeral arrangements can begin.

4. Can the Pope watch TV or movies?

Yes, the Pope can watch TV and/or movies. In fact, the Vatican has its own film library, with over 8,000 titles, as well as a tiny movie theater to show them in, which was converted from its former use as a chapel. However, don’t picture the Pope curling up with some popcorn to binge-watch Breaking Bad (he probably won’t be checking out HBO’s upcoming series The Young Pope, either). Papal media viewing (at least that which has been publicly reported) tends to be pretty tame. Pope John Paul II’s movie list included Ghandi (before a visit to India), as well as Life Is Beautiful. Pope Benedict screened a miniseries about the life of Pope John Paul II, but his daily media tastes mirrored that of many men of his generation—catching the evening news, with the occasional black-and-white movie sprinkled in.

Pope Francis revealed in an interview that he hasn’t watched TV since 1990, after promising the Virgin Mary he wouldn’t do so again. While this limits his ability to keep track of his favorite soccer team, he has tasked a member of the Swiss Guard with keeping him up to date on the team’s performance. Despite his TV blackout, Pope Francis has spoken about his love of films, citing Rome, Open City, a WWII-era war drama, Fellini’s La Strada, and Babette’s Feast, a fable about the joys of sacrifice and community, as some of his favorites.

3. What does the Pope eat? Can he drink alcohol?

Popes are bound by their priestly vows of celibacy, but food and drink give them access to other earthly pleasures. Popes have indulged to various degrees. Pope Martin VI, for example, stuffed himself so thoroughly on eels that his 1285 death was attributed to gluttony; author Dante riffed on this idea, including the line, “The eels are glad that he is dead” when referencing the pontiff in his work Purgatorio.

Modern-day Popes have gone easier on the eels, while still finding ways to enjoy their favorite foods. Pope Benedict even brought in his own “guardian angels” to work in the kitchen, which he immediately had renovated, ditching the nuns who had previously run the papal kitchen in favor of staff who knew how to whip up pasta, strudel, and tiramisu just the way he liked it. In contrast, Pope Francis takes his meals in the Vatican hotel dining room with other residents, and generally favors more austere meals, though he has confessed a weakness for pizza, and regret that he can no longer casually enjoy a slice in a pizzeria. When reminded by his interviewer that he could easily call for delivery to the Vatican, Pope Francis responded, “It is not the same thing.”

So, if papal food can basically be as indulgent or dietetic as the Pope (and his doctors) desire, what about Papal drinks? There are no prohibitions on the Pope’s consumption of alcohol, and most Popes have treated themselves to a drink, at least on occasion. Pope Paul VI liked to relax with a highball (light scotch and soda), while Pope Benedict XVI, in true German style, favored beer, which he has continued to enjoy in his retirement. Pope Francis has publically touted the role of wine in celebrations, and has been named an honorary sommelier; the Pope has said he does enjoy wine from around the world, “But just a little.” Pope Francis has also gotten a non-boozy boost on occasion from another beverage—highly caffeinated yerba mate from his native Argentina.

2. Does the Pope ever dress casually?

While the papal robes may change in style from Pope to Pope, it is hard to conjure up an image of the Pope wearing anything but his trademark white robes. Other garments may be layered on top of the robe when ceremony, weather, or situation demands, and the Pope can pants of his choosing under the cassock. But does he ever get to dress down?

The answer is yes, the Pope sometimes wears casual clothes, but to avoid damaging the Pope’s image, the more ordinary outfits are kept out of the public eye. If the Pope puts on sweatpants, he does so behind closed doors. Some activities are almost impossible to do in a cassock (which is why you never see the Pope going on a bike ride, for example), though the advanced age of the Popes generally imposes an additional limit on the kind of vigorous activity that would require gym clothes.

One Pope who didn’t hesitate to shed the robes when they interfered with his activities was Pope John Paul II, who was an avid sportsman. The Pope often hit the slopes, and while the robes weren’t part of his skiing attire, he did wear red boots on at least one occasion. And, though this video that purports to show him swimming is likely not authentic, Pope John Paul II was an enthusiastic swimmer who kept up the habit during his papacy, an activity that almost certainly required more casual garb.

1. Do Popes sneak out?

It’s lonely at the top. Many world leaders (and their spouses), as well as celebrities, have grown frustrated with security restrictions and press attention that limit their mobility and privacy, and have “snuck out,” traveling incognito to avoid unwanted attention. So do Popes ever sneak out? The answer is yes—Popes have, on several occasions that we know of–and probably several that we don’t–ditched the confines of the Vatican to travel inconspicuously among the masses.

The reasons for these secret papal jaunts vary from Pope to Pope. Pope John Paul II reportedly made over 100 off-the-recprd trips to ski and hike in the Italian Alps, taking a break not only from his papal duties, but also from his papal robes, wearing normal clothes for his outdoor excursions. Before leaving his papal role entirely, Pope Benedict XVI snuck out for an unannounced visit to a local art exhibit. Pope John XXIII dressed as a regular priest during his frequent night walks through Rome, where he attended to the sick and enjoyed some unstructured time exploring the city.

In 1848, Pope Pius XI had probably the least enjoyable incognito excursion of the papacy, fleeing the Vatican dressed in ordinary priest garb, to escape rioters during the struggle surrounding Italy’s unification. While Pope Francis was rumored to have been sneaking out at night to meet with the homeless, an assertion the Vatican says is, “simply not true,” at least one more mundane errand has been confirmed. Pope Francis made a surprise trip to an optician’s shop for new glasses, where he insisted on reusing his existing frames and paying for the new lenses himself.


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