Sometimes, when browsing the Internet, I like to research footage and recordings of historical figures, especially those who lived before TV and radio were widespread. There is, to me, something fascinating about hearing voices that death has forever silenced in this world, and that are so old that most people alive today haven’t heard them. Likewise, I am fascinated by photographs and video footage of people who lived before I was born, and who I never would have seen otherwise. Yet I can see them on my screen, just as I can with any other contemporary figure.
Of course, it is possible to admire portraits and sculptures of historical figures who lived even before photography was invented. But such depictions are different from those captured by cameras, since other forms of media necessarily involve the interpretation of an artist, and may not reflect reality as accurately or objectively. As St. John Paul II said in his Theology of the Body catechesis:
“In painting or sculpture the human body always remains a model, undergoing specific elaboration on the part of the artist. In the film, and even more in the photographic art, it is not the model that is transfigured, but the living man is reproduced. In this case man, the human body, is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques”
I decided to make this post so our readers who might also be interested in this topic can see and hear the popes that they have perhaps never seen or heard. I decided to stop at John Paul I, since I assume most of our readership is well-acquainted with the voices and faces of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Additionally, there is a wealth of footage online of the last three pontiffs, so you will not have trouble finding them with a simple Google search.
My timeframe starts with the invention of photography. The first photograph was taken in 1826-27 AD, during the pontificate of Pope Leo XII. The process was still very crude at that time, and it took several hours (or even days) to capture an image. Subsequent technological developments were needed to make it possible to take a picture of a living person. It wasn’t until two papacies later that a camera was invented that required a few minutes of exposure to produce a clearly-defined picture. The generally accepted birth year of practical photography is 1839, during the reign of Gregory XVI. Yet it was Gregory’s immediate successor who would win the title of the first pope to be photographed.
Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878)
Pope Pius IX’s reign spanned a big slice of the nineteenth century. Only St. Peter had a longer pontificate (according to the tradition). Pius IX’s pontificate had also a significant qualitative impact both on his century and on the centuries to come. He was the pope who defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, who convened and directed the First Vatican Council, and who witnessed the fall of the Papal States.
He was also the first pope to be photographed, which means he is the first pontiff who we can see as he really was. He was not photographed only once, but at least six times. However, many of these pictures do not seem to be dated, so it is not possible to pinpoint with certainty which was the first to be taken. Aleteia has compiled a slide show with Pius IX’s six known photos (click here). I have taken the liberty of posting only two more:
From Pius IX onward, we have photographic records of every pope. Yet, as the nineteenth century continued to unfold, technology kept making huge strides. Sound recording was invented in 1877, and chronophotography (the precursor to film) one year later. Unfortunately that was the precise year that Pius IX died, so the sound of the voice that proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is lost to history.
Leo XIII (1878-1903)
It seems fitting that the first pope of the twentieth century was also the first pope to be filmed. After all, Pope Leo XIII was a pioneer in many ways, most notably having been the first pope to write an encyclical on Catholic social teaching (Rerum Novarum). He was also the first whose voice was recorded and who was captured in a motion picture.
Below is a video of the oldest known film footage of Leo XIII, from 1896. According to Rome Reports, this was done to quash rumors of his ill health among European leaders. Additionally, this video features an audio recording of the same pope praying the Hail Mary in Latin (recorded in 1903).
St. Pius X (1903-1914)
Pope St. Pius X is perhaps best known for his rightful crusade against the heresy of Modernism. However, even if his name has been misappropriated to attack current popes, Pius X was also a liturgical reformer who helped pave the way to the Second Vatican Council.
Unlike his predecessor, Pius X did not seem to have had a pressing reason motivating him to be filmed. After the loss of the Papal States, the popes viewed themselves as “prisoners of the Vatican,” and avoided appearing in public as a form of protest. Still, we do have this footage of him walking in the Vatican Gardens:
As for his voice, it seems that no audio records of him exist. Pius X died in 1914, and microphone recording would still not be invented until around 1925, propelling the so-called “Electrical Era” of sound recording. Before that, in the “Acoustic Era,” a person would have to take the time to go to a small room in a studio and speak into a funnel.
I stumbled upon a video that allegedly contains footage of Pius X’s Easter blessing. This video however, seems to have been mislabeled, given the technical considerations I mentioned above, and also given that movie cameras could not record sound at the time, and also given that this kind of public blessing from St. Peter’s balcony only resumed in the 1920s (again, as a protest for the loss of the Papal States). Additionally, at the 0:19 mark of the video, one can see the coat of arms displayed below the pope. Clearly visible are the three distinct marks, reflecting the three circles on Pius XI’s coat of arms, which do not appear on that of Pius X. Therefore, it seems that the person in this video is Pius XI, not Pius X.
Benedict XV (1914-1922)
Pope Benedict XV, the pope who guided the Church through World War I, faced similar technical and contextual obstacles to those of his predecessor. Once again, my search for audio recordings of his voice yielded no results. But there is a collection with some video footage of him. In my opinion, this is the first pope that appears on film in a way where we can clearly see his face.
(note: the embedded video seems to be disabled;
please click on this link to the actual Youtube video)
Pius XI (1922-1939)
Pope Pius XI is perhaps best known for his condemnations of the errors of the ideological currents of his day, which would unfortunately continue to shape the history of the world after his pontificate: from Fascism to Socialism, from Communism to unbridled Capitalism, and of course Nazism. Pius XI’s prophetic voice did not waver in warning mankind against these systems of thought.
He was also the reigning pope when the Electrical Era of sound recording began. Movie cameras were now able to record audio and superimpose it on a film. Therefore, there are more recordings of Pius XI’s voice than any of his predecessors. This pontiff also opened the Vatican radio station with the help of Guglielmo Marconi, who had developed the first radio transmitter and receiver in 1895-96. For this reason, it seems appropriate to share this 1931 footage of Pius XI’s speech (in Italian) upon the inauguration of the papal radio station.
Venerable Pius XII (1939-1958)
Pope Pius XII is most well-known for having steered the Church during the Second World War. For that endeavor, Pius took recourse to new technologies, especially in broadcasting radio messages to the faithful. In fact, one of his most famous interventions was his 1942 Christmas Radio Address, condemning the atrocities of Nazism, and transmitted precisely through the aforementioned Vatican Radio Station. Below, we can see a video of the Pope’s blessing of the allied troops when Rome was liberated in 1944 (with a speech in English):
Pius XII was also the pope who defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950, a moment that was immortalized on film:
I particularly enjoy this prayer in English asking God for World Peace. Both his voice and gestures are as clear as his message:
Finally, Pius XII seems to have been the first pope to appear in video with color, which makes him appear even more lifelike:
St. John XXIII (1958-1963)
Pope St. John XXIII’s papacy was marked by the Cold War. He was instrumental in averting the nuclear war that could have resulted from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Below is a video of this pope, from the same year.
However, certainly the greatest hallmark of John XXIII’s papacy was his convening of the Second Vatican Council. Below is footage from the opening of this ecumenical council. John XXIII can be seen from 3:09 to 3:24, and heard at the 4:12 mark.
For those who would want to hear more of this saintly pope’s voice, below is a video of his famous “La Luna” speech on the night before the Council opened.
St. Paul VI (1963-1978)
Even if John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the task of finishing and implementing it would fall to his successor. Here is the video of Pope St. Paul VI closing this ecumenical council:
Paul VI, the prophetic author of Humanae Vitae, lived in a time when television was becoming more widespread, so footage of him is much more available than for any of his predecessors. I selected his 1965 visit to the United States, since this was the first pope to set foot on America (and in fact, the first pope in many centuries to leave Italy). His historical speech at the United Nations Headquarters (in French) begins at the 3:22 mark.
Paul VI was also the first pope to visit Fatima, in 1967:
Venerable John Paul I (1978-1978)
The lack of audio and video recordings of John Paul I stem, not from technical difficulties, but from his short pontificate, which lasted 33 days. Still, we can hear his voice, since his first words as a pope were recorded:
And here, we see images of his Papal Inauguration Mass:
Indeed, we live in wondrous times. At the time of St. Peter the Apostle, only a fraction of the Church ever saw him in person or heard his voice. Most knew him only from his writing. This situation really didn’t change substantially during the first 1,800 years of the history of the Church. Nowadays, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we are able to see images of 12 popes as they actually appeared, and to hear the voices of 9 of these Successors of Peter, over the span of almost two centuries. This is a privilege unknown to any people before us.
To conclude, and as a side bonus, here is a compilation of all the “Habemus Papam” declarations from Pius XII onward.