A Papal Who's Who

Pope Francis is the 266th leader of the Catholic Church and the first pope from the Americas [source: The Guardian]. As the head of the Catholic Church, the papacy has always carried power and recognition, but there are some popes who stand out through history. Here are a few of them:

  • St. Peter (64 or 67) - Although he never carried the title of pope or bishop of Rome in his lifetime, he is considered to be the first pope of the Catholic Church.
  • St. Leo I (440-461) - He is one of three popes known to have the title "The Great" attached to his name. Leo bolstered the power of the papacy by issuing the Petrine theory.
  • St. Leo III (795-816) - He crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in 800, an event that marked the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • John XII (955-964) - He is believed to be the youngest pope in history, elected at approximately 18 years of age.
  • Gregory XI (1370-1378) - He returned the papal seat to Rome after a nearly 70-year period in which the papacy resided in Avignon, France. Later, after Gregory's death, this move back to Rome would cause the Western Schism (1378-1415), during which there were two popes: one from Avignon and one from Rome.
  • Blessed John XXIII (1958-1963) - He influenced church doctrine by convening the Second Vatican Council, which brought together church leaders to discuss the possibilities of modernizing the church.
  • John Paul II (1978-2005) - He was the first Slavic pope, often credited with helping to end communism in Central and Eastern Europe. John Paul II was the second-longest-serving pope in history.

Papal Authority

As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the supreme spiritual leader of the church and controls the church doctrine. With more than a billion followers, the pope's decisions affect societies and governments all over the world.

To understand the authority of the papacy, we should first understand a little history of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church dates back to the time of Jesus Christ, who selected Peter to lead his church. Peter's original name was Simon. In the New Testament book of Matthew (16:18), after Simon recognizes Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), Jesus changes his name, replying, "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." This statement, now known as the Petrine guarantee or Petrine theory, gave Peter the fullness of power and is the scriptural basis for papal authority [source: Britannica].

Most theologians believe the "rock" of which Christ spoke is Peter himself. Peter's name in Aramaic is Cephas, a word meaning "rock." Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke. Knowing this, Matthew 16:18 can be interpreted as Jesus saying that he is building his church on the strength of Peter. Further evidence of this conferment of power is in John 21:15-19, when Christ tells Peter, "Feed my sheep."

Upon his ascension, Peter became the undisputed leader of the group of followers of Christ. At some point in his life, likely near the end, Peter moved to Rome to spread the word of Christ, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It was in Rome that Nero, the Roman emperor who persecuted the church, killed Peter. Tradition holds he was crucified upside down. Through his death, Peter became a martyr. His body was buried on Vatican Hill and St. Peter's Cathedral was later erected over his grave.

During his life, Peter was never officially the bishop of Rome or the pope, but in honor of his work and his role as the head of the church, he is recognized as the first pope. Every pope since Peter is considered the immediate successor of Peter, and not of that pope's immediate predecessor. A pope is considered to be carrying on the power that Christ granted Peter. Today, a great number of the pope's powers are derived from the Petrine guarantee, which is etched in Latin around the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral.

The pope's powers were bolstered in the First Vatican Council in 1870, when 433 bishops passed the decree of papal infallibility. According to the decree, the pope "is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith and morals" [source: Catholic Encyclopedia].

The next two sections explain the process of papal succession.