The Church of Santa Susanna - Home of the American Catholic Church in Rome
Our Church
Coming to Rome
Visitor Information
On Pilgrimage
Pope and Vatican
Weddings in Rome
Our Unique History
For New Residents
The Paulist Staff
Contact Us
Our Unique History
American ParishOur SaintsOur PopesCardinalsCistercians

Our Popes

The Eight Popes of Santa Susanna
Eight Popes are associated with the history of the church of Santa Susanna. The church was at one time the home of Pope Caius where he celebrated the eucharist for the Christian community. For Pope Eleutherius, the church is his final resting place. Pope Sixtus V was responsible for the construction and frescoes of the present church, and five others were cardinal priest of Santa Susanna before their election as pope. Here is something about each of them in chronological order. This material is taken from many sources but especially from J.N.D. Kelly's Oxford Dictionary of the Popes and Richard McBrien's recent Lives of the Popes.

Pope Saint EleutheriusPope Saint Eleutherius

Buried in the Church of Santa Susanna, he was the twelfth successor of St. Peter. Eleutherius was a Greek from Nicopolis in Epirus and had served as deacon to Pope Anicetus (155-166). It was during his papacy that St. Irenaeus of Lyon visited Rome to discuss the suffering of the Christians of Lyon and to bring a letter critical of the prophesies of the heresy of Montanism. This movement was derived from a series of prophesies which announced the end of the world and demanded that Christians live rigid and severe lives in preparation. Tertullian a prominent convert from North Africa states that Eleutherius was initially attracted to Montanism and only later in his papacy did he come to condemn it.

Eleutherius is listed as a martyr. He died during the reign of the Emperor Commodus (180-192). Commodus was the son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The new emperor was insane and during his reign Rome became increasingly violent. Fascinated with eastern mystery religions and violent circus games, a number of Christians, including Eleutherius perished under his misrule.

The body of Eleutherius originally rested in the catacombs and then in the small church of San Giovanni della Pigna, near the Pantheon. In 1591, his body was brought to the Church of Santa Susanna by Camilla Peretti (the sister of Pope Sixtus V). The great fresco over his tomb altar by Giovanni Pozzo (1563-1591) shows Eleutherius being dragged by horses and then burned over a grill while the Emperor Commodus watched. Pope St. Eleutherius' feast day is May 26th.

Back to Index

Pope Saint Caius
(17 December 283 - 22 April 296)

Original owner of the site of the Church of Santa Susanna. He was from Dalmatia (along the coast of Bosnia), Caius is attributed to be a relative of the emperor Diocletian. Caius was the uncle of Saint Susanna and the church stands over the site of the two houses built by Caius and his brother Gabinus about the year 285. Here Caius, Gabinus and Susanna lived. Here the Christian community gathered to celebrate the eucharist, as the church could not own property.

Caius is attributed to have encouraged both his niece Susanna and the captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, Saint Sebastian to witness to their faith even under the threat of martyrdom. While Susanna, Gabinus and Sebastian were all martyred under Diocletian, it appears that Caius died a natural death. He is buried in the chamber next to the papal crypt in the catacombs of San Callistus.

When the first church was constructed over the site of Caius' house about 330, the church was originally called San Caio. The growing devotion to Saint Susanna, who was buried in the church, led Pope St. Gregory the Great to rename the church Santa Susanna in 590. Pope St. Caius' feast day is April 22.

Back to Index

Pope Conon
(21 October 686 - 21 September 687)

Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he was elected pope in 686 as a compromise candidate. When his predecessor John V had died, a dispute broke out between two factions, the clergy of Rome who favored the priest Peter and the military who wanted their chaplain the priest Theodore. The army had taken possession of San Stefano in Rotundo on the Celian to use as a command post. Soldiers were then sent up the Celian hill to the St. John Lateran to prevent the clergy from entering the basilica and electing Peter. Faced with this opposition, the Roman clergy shifted their allegiance to the elderly priest of Santa Susanna, Conon, whose father had been a highly regarded general from Thrace. This was acceptable the military, and they stepped aside to allow the clergy to elect Conon pope.

Conon soon found himself in contest with the new emperor Justinian II (685-95, 707-711) who considered himself the guardian of the faith, and who believed that both the bishops of Rome and Constantinople were subject to his authority in all things. As the new emperor was young, Conon actually benefited from some initial tax relief put through by the new emperor's administration. While this assisted the pope's popularity in Rome, Conon was to experience significant criticism for placing the deacon Constantine over the administration of Sicily. The Sicilians would arrest and deport Constantine, embarrassing the pope.

Elderly and sickly, he died after reigning only one year and leaving many conflicts and issues for his successor to resolve. He did leave in his will a large bequest to the clergy and people of Rome Pope Conon was buried in the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peters in Rome.

Back to Index

Pope Saint Sergius
(15 December 687 - 8 September 701)

Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he was born in Palermo of a Syrian family from Antioch, attended choir school in Rome and succeeded Conon as priest of Santa Susanna. A conflict broke out after the death of Conon between the deacon Paschal and the priest Theodore. Paschal had bribed the imperial governor at Ravenna, John Platyn, with a hundred pounds of gold if he were elected. Paschal was the administrator of the estate of pope Conon, and planned to pay the governor with money willed to the clergy and people of Rome. Platyn ordered his appointees in Rome to see to Paschal's election when Conon died on September 21. A rival group then elected the priest Theodore who had been a favorite candidate during the election of Conon. Both groups raced to the Lateran to install their candidates. Theodore arrived first and took one part of the Lateran palace and Paschal arrived and took possession of the other side. Neither being able to formally install their candidate at the main altar.

When it was clear that neither group would give way, a meeting was held between the majority of the clergy, civil and military leaders of Rome on the Palatine hill. They unanimously chose Sergius, the priest of Santa Susanna. The group then marched to the Lateran basilica and subdued both factions. Sergius was formally declared pope. Theodore and his followers submitted but Paschal had to be forced to submit. He wrote to the imperial governor urging him to come in person and overturn the election. When John Platyn arrived and discovered the election was both legal and that Sergius was extremely popular in Rome, he ratified the choice. This allowed Sergius to be ordained bishop in December. Playtn however, claimed the hundred pounds of gold promised him by Paschal from the estate of the old pope. Paschal continued to scheme against against Sergius until the deacon was finally deposed and imprisoned in a monastery where he died unrepentant.

Sergius proved to be an energetic and strong pope who successfully asserted papal authority over the western church. He rejected the teachings of a church council (the second Trullan Council) called by Justinian II which had occurred without the presence of western bishops, and which ruled against a variety of western canonical practices. This angered the emperor who deported the pope's representatives in Constantinople and sent the commander of his Imperial guard, Zacharius, to Rome to either obtain the pope's signature or bring him back as a prisoner. The imperial troops in Ravenna rallied to Sergius and routed Zacharius and his forces. According to one story, Zacharius hid under the pope's bed in the Lateran while Sergius pleaded to spare his life. The emperor Justinian would soon be deposed and sent into exile in the year 695 for mismanagement of the empire.

Sergius rebuilt and embellished a variety of churches in Rome, including his own Santa Susanna. He reburied Pope St. Leo the Great in a grand tomb in the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peters. A fine singer, Sergius introduced the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God to the western liturgy and created the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross. He was buried in the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peters. His feast day is September 8.

Back to Index

Pope Saint Leo III
(26 December 795 - 12 June 816)

Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he came from a modest family in southern Italy. He was elected unanimously by the clergy of Rome following the death of Pope Hadrian. The papacy had dramatically changed over the 8th century. Pope has separated themselves from the protection the Byzantine emperors and their governors in Ravenna. Pope Stephen II had in 754 sought the support of the Frankish king Pepin to defeat the invading Lombards. The pope would receive from Pepin the lands formally conquered by the Lombards, therefore creating the Papal States. The Lombards remained, and Leo soon found that he had other enemies within Rome, many of the aristocratic families of the city including relatives of the late Pope Hadrian who accused the pope of perjury and adultery.

On April 25, 799, while riding in procession Leo was attacked by a gang who sought to cut out his eyes and tongue. While Leo survived the attack, he was arrested by his enemies, deposed as pope and imprisoned in a monastery. Leo managed to escape north to the Franks who refused to accept the deposition. Leo was escorted back to Rome where the Franks began an investigation both of the charges against the pope and the attack upon his person. The emperor Charlemagne arrived in Rome in November 800 to review the charges in solemn council. The emperor stated that no one on earth could judge the Apostolic See, but he accepted the pope's statement of innocence after Leo took an oath purging himself of all charges on December 23rd.

At Christmas mass at St. Peters some two days later, Leo crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, giving Charlemagne equal status with the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople. This relationship provided protection for the Holy See and allowed Leo to administer the Papal States, bestowed several decades earlier by Pepin. However Charlemagne extracted a high price for his support, often interfering in the work of the church and expecting Leo's tacit approval in all things. Leo began a building program in Rome, restoring and embellishing churches. A great apse was added to Santa Susanna and a magnificent Byzantine mosaic was installed in the apse, depicting both Leo and Charlemagne. Leo died on June 12, 816 and was buried in the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter. Leo is listed as a saint based on the miracle of his restored eyes and tongue, following the attack on his person in 799, his feast day is June 12.

Back to Index

Pope Nicholas V
(6 March 1447 - 24 March 1455)

Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, and the first of the Renaissance popes. Born Tomes Parentucelli on 15 November 1397, the son of doctor from Sazana near La Spezia. He worked for the Bishop of Bologna, Nicholas Albergati for almost twenty years, following him to Rome, where he joined Albergati in the Roman curia. An excellent diplomat, he was sent as Papal Legate to Germany in 1446 persuading the Germans to support Eugenius IV as pope who the Council of Basel deposed and elected anti-pope Felix V in his place. For this success Eugenius made Parentucelli cardinal priest of Santa Susanna and in 1447, Bishop of Bologna. He was unable to take possession of his see because Bologna was in revolt. Eugenius died in February and the 18 cardinals meeting in Conclave were deadlocked. The favorite candidate, Cardinal Colonna remained a few votes short of election at which point Cardinal Parentucelli emerged as a compromise candidate. Upon his election at the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the new pope took the name of Nicholas after his old mentor from Bologna.

A superb politician and diplomat, Nicholas V was a much need reconciler following the conflict between pope and council at Basel. He ended the schism by persuading anti-pope Felix V to abdicate, making him Cardinal priest of Santa Sabina with a substantial pension. He also persuaded the Council of Basel to dissolve after confirming Nicholas' election as pope. Nicholas then proclaimed the Holy Year of 1450 to celebrate the restored unity of the church. While he failed to bring about any real and needed reform of the church, he did bring the intellectual aspirations and artistic achievements of the Renaissance into partnership with the church. It was Nicholas who brought Fra Angelico to Rome and it was his donation of some 1200 Greek and Latin manuscripts that began the Vatican Library. In the last years of his life, he became increasingly worried, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, and increasingly suspicious of plots against his life. He died March 24, 1455.

Back to Index

Pope Sixtus V
(24 April 1585 - 27 August 1590)

The pope responsible for the remodeling of the present church of Santa Susanna, he was born Felice Peretti in the March of Ancona on December 13, 1520. The son of a farm worker, his education was provided through his uncle who was a Franciscan. Felice joined the Franciscans, receiving a doctor degree in theology in 1548. An extraordinary preacher he was brought to Rome by Cardinal Carpi, protector of the order. His series of Lenten sermons made his reputation in Rome and Paul IV invited him to come and work in the curia. In 1566 St. Pius V appointed him vicar general of the Franciscans and bishop of Sant'Agata dei Goti. The pope's confessor, he was made a cardinal in 1570. Clashing with the new pope, Gregory XIII after his election in 1572, Peretti was pensioned off in semi-retirement to a villa on the Esquiline where he lived in relative obscurity. Following the death of Gregory in 1585, he was unanimously elected as successor and took the name Sixtus after the last Franciscan pope.

The Papal States and Rome itself suffered from increasing violence and banditry, caused in part by a large number of dispossessed aristocrats, who has lost their lands due to Gregory XIII's need for revenue. Sixtus immediately employed a series of harsh measures to end this state of lawlessness. After two years or arrests and public executions that numbered in the thousands, peace was restored to Rome and the Papal States. Changing both the economic and agricultural policies of the Papal States, he drained the marshes, set food prices, and encouraged the development of the wool and silk industries. Sixtus raised taxes, floated loans and sold off church offices, becoming one of the richest men in Europe and accumulating millions of scudi in gold which he housed at Castel San Angelo. He reorganized the Roman Curia creating a system that remained in place until Vatican Council II. Sixtus effectively enforced the decrees of the Council of Trent, set the number of cardinals at seventy, established the policy of bishops visiting Rome every so many years to report on their dioceses.

Sixtus is best remembered for his transformation of the city of Rome into a Baroque city, which was accomplished through a series of great boulevards that linked the Medieval pilgrimage churches of Rome. He rebuilt the Lateran Palace and enlarged the Quirinal Palace, the papal residences. He completed the dome of St. Peters and is most remembered for erecting a series of obelisks in key places throughout the city including St. Peter's Square. It was Sixtus who commissioned the remodeling of the Santa Susanna as part of his urban renewal, and it was school of Sistine artists associated with his commissions he painted the present frescoes inside the church. Sixtus died of malaria on August 27, 1590 and is buried in St. Mary Major.

Back to Index

Pope Clement XII
(12 July 1730 - 6 February 1740)

The last cardinal priest of Santa Susanna to be elected pope, he was born Lorenzo Corsini in Florence on April 7, 1652. The oldest son of nobleman who had made his fortune in business, Lorenzo was educated both in Rome and Pisa, receiving a doctor of law degree in 1675. Upon his father's death in 1685, he decided to enter the priesthood and with his personal wealth and the assistance and family friends, he rose rapidly through the Roman curia. He was made a titular archbishop in 1690 and nuncio to Vienna in 1691, but as he was not a cardinal, the emperor refused to acknowledge his presence. He returned to Rome and became papal treasurer in 1696. In 1706 he was made cardinal priest of Santa Susanna by Clement XI. In residence in the Pamphili Palace in the Piazza Navona, he was in the very center of Rome's scholarly and artistic life. Cardinal Corsini was nominated in the conclaves of 1721 and 1724, and was finally elected in July 1730 at the end of a highly conflictive four month conclave. He took the name Clement after his papal patron who had made him a cardinal.

Elected at the age of 78, Clement was often bedridden with gout and he became blind in 1732. His administration depended increasingly on his friends and his nephew Nero Corsini who he made a cardinal. He reintroduced lotteries, and began printing paper money, and he established a free port at Ancona. Clement brought to trial and imprisoned several members of the last papal administration who had caused the financial crisis he had inherited. The pope had significant problems in international relationships, often finding himself ignored by the Catholic powers of Europe. The lessening of the papal debt together with his own fortune allowed Clement to embellish the city of Rome. He built the great facade on St. John Lateran and the beautiful Andrea Corsini chapel inside the basilica. He is probably best remembering for commissioning the Trevi Fountain, that bears his name, one of the most visited sites in Rome. He died on February 6, 1740 and after a grand funeral procession from St. Peter's he was buried in the Corsini chapel of St. John Lateran.

Back to Index