What Is the Significance of the Pope in Catholicism? (2023)

The Roman Catholic Church has over 1 billion followers in the world to date, making it the largest branch of Christianity. The pope is known as the earthly leader of the Catholic Church and the head of state representing its governing body, known as the Holy See.

The papacy is a seat of authority steeped in 2,000 years of history. Let’s briefly explore the significance of the papacy below.

What Is the Pope’s Role Within the Catholic Church?

1. The Pope as the successor of Peter.The papacy is the oldest living institution in the Western world. The papal office can be traced from the time of the Apostle Peter in the first century to the present day.

Specifically, Catholics believe that Jesus established the papacy when He chose Peter (the first pope) to be the head of the Apostles, bestowing upon Peter the title of “the rock” upon which Christ would build His church (Matthew 16:18).

Every pope thereafter is believed to be a successor of Peter, and head of the bishops as Peter was head of the apostles.

As the earthly head of Catholics worldwide, the Pope also bears such titles as Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, and Successor of the Prince of the Apostles.

The Pope has an immense responsibility to serve as the earthly shepherd for the spiritual and moral beliefs of the Catholic faithful. He directs his flock through speeches and writings, often on matters of social concern and global impact.

The pope also leads the faithful through directives sent to the bishops who oversee dioceses around the world.

As head of the Church, the pope is responsible for appointing bishops and promoting existing bishops to cardinals as he sees fit.

2. The Pope as infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit.Catholics believe that the Pope cannot err when he officially defines matters of faith and morals in his capacity as the supreme teacher of the Catholic Church.

In other words, although the Pope himself is capable of sin and personal misconduct like any other human being, he is believed to proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly.

Catholics believe this because they believe that the Pope, as the successor of Peter, is guarded from error by the Holy Spirit when interpreting matters of Christian doctrine (Luke 22:31-32; John 16:13-15).

This belief in papal infallibility is ancient in origin. In the second century, early church father St. Irenaeus wrote that all churches must agree with the pronouncements of the Church of Rome, led by Peter’s successor, since that church was of “preeminent authority” and maintained the apostolic tradition (Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

In the early fifth century, St. Augustine, another of the early church fathers, summarized the belief in papal infallibility with regard to doctrinal matters when he noted that, “Rome has spoken; the case is concluded” (Sermons 131, 10).

How Is the Pope Chosen?

The cardinals elect a new pope upon the death of a current pope or, as in the case of Pope Benedict XVI, a resignation. The election of a new pope draws worldwide attention, as Catholics eagerly await the announcement of who the new head of the Catholic Church will be.

The voting process itself is intense. When it’s time to elect a new pope, up to 120 of the world’s cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel to cast paper ballots for a new successor to St. Peter in what’s known as a papal conclave.

A two-thirds majority is required to elect a new pope. Once the votes are tallied, if a two-thirds majority isn’t reached or if the nominee declines the nomination, then wet straw is mixed with the paper ballots and burned in a chimney that blows black smoke for everyone outside the papal conclave to see.

The black smoke signals that no successor has yet been chosen. The cardinals then vote again and, when a two-thirds majority vote is reached and the nominee accepts the nomination, the ballots are burned without the straw, which blows white smoke to alert everyone watching that a new Vicar of Christ has been chosen.

As for who are eligible to become pope, usually the cardinals elect another cardinal but even a layman can be elected pope.

Popes hold their office for life unless they voluntarily resign, an uncommon event in the 2,000-year history of the papacy.

A papal resignation must be voluntary in the sense that it must occur without coercion. Otherwise, no one can remove a pope from office for any reason.

Where Is the Papal Seat?

The Pope oversees matters concerning the worldwide Catholic Church from Vatican City. Vatican City is the world’s smallest, independent nation-state.

It has a population of around 800 people — most of whom are priests or nuns — and is completely encircled by the city of Rome.

One of the most well-known places within Vatican City is St. Peter’s Basilica, which was built in the fourth century over the tomb of St. Peter.

The Pope and Vatican City are protected by a corps of Swiss Guards, known as the “world’s smallest army.”

The Swiss Guards are independent of Switzerland’s armed forces and are, instead, employed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Vatican City is under the full ownership and exclusive authority of the Holy See, which is the name given to the Catholic Church’s governing body. The pope serves both as head of Vatican City and the Holy See.

Who Are Among the Most Well-Known Popes?

1. Pope Francis (2013-present).Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, Pope Francis is the first Latin American pope.

When he assumed office in 2013, Francis wasted no time in breaking with tradition by asking the enormous crowd that awaited his first words as the Pope to pray for him.

Francis was also the first pope to publicly condemn the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crimes, and he convened a summit to tackle the sex abuse scandal.

As an advocate for the greater involvement of women in the Church, Francis gave bishops permission to institute women in roles in ministries previously allotted only to men. Francis is also an advocate of refugees and uses his influence to aid the plight of refugees around the globe.

Moreover, Francis has not gone without his critics as he has issued sharp warnings to clergy members worldwide, instructing them to show more humility and a willingness to embrace all members of their flocks.

2. Saint Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Poland, Saint Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century.

John Paul II changed the global impact of the Catholic Church in significant ways during his 27-year papacy.

For example, John Paul II’s fervent emphasis on the cooperation between nations is credited with contributing to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In addition, John Paul II’s call for cooperation between religions prompted him to issue unprecedented apologies from the seat of St. Peter to groups that had historically been wronged by Catholics, such as Jews and Muslims.

Saint John Paul II was also the force behind the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes the main beliefs of Catholicism.

Lastly, this pope instituted World Youth Day, an encounter with the Pope celebrated in different parts of the world every three years where hundreds of thousands of young people gather to celebrate their love of Jesus Christ.

What Does This Mean?

Catholics believe that Jesus established the hierarchy seen in the Catholic Church when He chose the apostles to be responsible for spreading His ministry, and when He chose Peter as the head of those apostles.

Jesus instructed His apostles to preach everything He taught and promised them the guidance of the Holy Spirit toward all truth (Matthew 28:16-20; John 16:13).

Today, Catholics believe that the bishops are the successors of the apostles and that the Pope, as the head of the bishops, is the successor of the Apostle Peter.

This belief in the succession of the apostles coupled with Christ’s assertion that the gates of hell will not overcome His church, assure Catholics that the Catholic Church will stay true to Christ’s teachings, even when individual Catholics do not.

For further reading:

What Is the Significance of the Catholic Rosary?

What Is a Mortal Sin According to the Catholic Church?

What Is Catholicism?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Crisfotolux

Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her over Twitter @byDoloresSmyth.

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