The Pope

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You have reached an article on the head of the Roman Catholic Church. If you want to know about an English poet, go to Alexander Pope. There is also a page about other meanings at Pope.

AWE has an alphabetical list of all the Popes of Rome, divided for practical reasons of size into Popes (alphabetical list A-L) and Popes (alphabetical list - M-Z); there is also a chronological list, divided into Popes (chronological List - to 1000) and Popes (chronological List - 1000 to now).

The Pope is the English title of the highest single member of the Roman Catholic Church, with authority over all its other members. He (and it is an office exclusively held by males) is the Bishop of Rome, and since at the latest Pope Leo the Great claimed it about 446, the Bishops of Rome have not only claimed but (mostly) been recognized as the pre-eminent Bishops in the church. The claim springs from the fact that the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion under the Emperor Theodosius (394-395), and that Rome was one of its two centres; also that the first recorded Bishop of Rome was Saint Peter, one of the Apostles - hence its title of 'The Apostolic See'. The Bishops of Rome claim an unbroken line of personal contact to Peter, who was appointed Head of the Church by Jesus ("thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16, 18), tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam in the Vulgate, a sentence which surrounds the base of the dome of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome). (Other titles include Supreme Pontiff [of the Universal Church] or Summus Pontifex [Ecclesiae Universalis], a title which nods at the former Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the [pagan] Roman empire and is still to be seen on works of art commissioned by Popes). The Pope also describes himself as servus servorum dei 'Servant of the Servants of God', which seems a fine model for management. A Pope is elected, since 1059 by the College of Cardinals from among themselves. (Before then, it was by the people of Rome and senior clergyman within the vicinity of Rome, not always from among their own number.)

  • The Pope (the English equivalent of the Latin: papa, which simply means 'Father', as Roman Catholic priests are still addressed by the faithful) is the chief of the Latin church. There are other meanings of the word:
    • Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Primate of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
    • The Chalcedonian (Greek Orthodox) Patriarch of Alexandria, the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria
    • A parish priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    • Historically, many bishops of the early Christian Church were called 'Pope'.

Since the election of Pope John II (533-535), all Popes have chosen a regnal name different from their own baptismal name. ('regnal name' is simply the name under which they reign.) It is speculated that he chose the name John as his own name was Mercurius, and Mercurius (the Latin form of 'Mercury') is the name of a Roman God: it would not be appropriate for the head of a Christian church to be named after a pagan deity. Before him, all popes had been known by their natural forename; since him, almost all are known by their regnal name: the last to be known by his baptismal name was Marcellus II , who reigned for 22 days in 1555. On his election, a new Pope is asked two questions: "Do you freely accept your election?" and "By what name shall you be called?" The choice is often designed as a signal of a wish to follow the pattern laid down by a predecessor, or a gesture of devotion to some pious exemplar.

  • The abstract noun labeling 'the office' or 'the organization' or 'the responsibilities' etc of The Pope is papacy.
  • The most neutral adjective meaning 'to do with the Pope or Papacy' is papal.
    • A pejorative term for a person who believes in or supports The Pope, or the papacy, is papist. This is not an appropriate word for academic writing: it may once have been a neutral descriptive term, but nowadays is prejudicial, and to be avoided. (In colloquial Scots, it can be shortened to pape. This should be used even less.) The less neutral adjective associated with it is papistical - which OED describes as "Chiefly derogatory." Don't use it!