A Papal Who's Who
John Paul II was the either the 265th or 266th pope of the Catholic Church, depending on the source. 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. According to this theory, Jesus appointed Peter as the head of the Christian Church, and evidence is found in the scripture.
- 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, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Innocent III (1198 - 1216) - He was elected pope at age 37. During a period when the imperial throne was empty, Innocent agreed to be guardian for King Frederick II of Sicily, whom Innocent would later crown emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. When Innocent accepted the guardianship of Frederick, Frederick's mother surrendered political rule of Sicily to Innocent.
- 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 Great 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 to 2005) - He was the first Slavic pope, often credited with helping to end communism in Central and Eastern Europe. John Paul II was also the most traveled pope in history.
As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the supreme spiritual leader of the Church and controls the church doctrine. With a billion followers, the pope's decisions impact 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, when Christ selected Peter to lead his Church. In the book of Matthew (16:18) of the Bible, Christ says to Peter, "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, gave Peter the fullness of power, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia.
Many theologians believe the "rock" of which Christ spoke is Peter himself. Peter's original name was Simon; Christ gave Peter another name, Cephas, an Aramaic word meaning "rock." Aramaic is the language that Christ spoke. Knowing this, Matthew 16:18 can be interpreted as Christ 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 Christ's ascension, Peter became the undisputed leader of the Church based on the powers given from Christ to Peter. At some point in his life, likely at the end of his life, Peter moved to Rome to spread the word of Christ, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. It was in Rome where Nero, the Roman emperor who persecuted the church, killed Peter. Through his death, Peter became a martyr. His body was buried on Vatican Hill. 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 amount of the pope's powers are derived from the Petrine guarantee, which is etched in Latin around the perimeter of 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. This decree declared that the pope was infallible in matters of faith and morality. According to the decree, the pope "is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed."
The next two sections explain the process of papal succession.