The pope is the bishop of Rome who is the head of the Catholic Church, the world’s greatest body of Christians.
In Muslim circles he has been called both a senior Christian official as well as Satan’s hellhound. Some Protestants say he is the Antichrist. Eastern Orthodox Christians say he is a bishop who has taken on too much power.
To Catholics he is the latest in a long line of bishops of Rome that goes all the way back to St Peter, whom Jesus made the head of the church in Matthew 16:18-19:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
At the end of his life Peter came to Rome, where he died upside down on a cross. Catholics say that the bishops of Rome succeed Peter in power and authority.
The power of the pope has grown and shrunk through the ages:
- At first he was just a first among equals, his authority was like that of an older brother.
- After 500, after the fall of Rome, he became more like a king of the Church.
- By the 1200s he commanded armies, fought wars and ruled the Papal States of Italy.
- In the 1300s pope fought anti-pope.
- By the 1500s the popes had grown so corrupt that they appear as evil princes in Machiavelli. Some ordinary Christians began to protest – the Protestants – and in the end left the Church.
- In the centuries since the pope has lost his armies and now rules over the smallest country in the world: just his palace, the Vatican, and his church, St Peter’s. The two make up Vatican City in Rome. Yet even now he still acts like a king of the church: he has the final word.
Most surprising of all, the pope says that he is infallible – that he can never be wrong when he declares a doctrine to be true or false! This is called papal infallibility. Popes have used this power only two times, both in the 1900s: to say that Mary was born without original sin and that she was assumed body and soul up into heaven. Both were things the Church had believed for centuries.
This might seem like a lot of power, but it means that no pope can go against what a previous pope has said!
Like kings, a pope is pope for life. But he cannot marry so unlike a king he has no sons to take his place.
When the pope dies, the cardinals, the top men of the church including all the important bishops, come together in the Vatican and chose a new pope from their number. When they have agreed on one, white smoke appears, the bells are rung and the new pope appears before the people.
– Abagond, 2006.