Primer on the Pope

On Facebook, I often share articles related to Pope Francis. If anyone keeps track, they’d probably recognize papal posts more consistently than anything else I share. Oh look, another Pope post from Patric. So what’s the big deal? Why do I care about what’s up with the Pope?

As most know, the Pope is the leader of the Catholic Church. (That is, he’s the head pastor, since Jesus is really the man in charge.) So it makes sense that the Pope’s significance relates to the fact that he speaks for Catholic Christianity in very important ways. Even the media catches on to this. For them, the Pope speaking implies the “Catholic position”—which may or may not be the case.

Pope Francis  |  AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Now, several denominations have leading ministers, including people who govern their Christian communities in important ways. But when it comes to the Pope, his importance is not simply related to the fact that he’s a leader. After all, simply being a leader of a church may in fact be arbitrary: Does the church have to have a leader? Is the Pope just a historical accident or practical convenience that developed over time? Etc.

Instead, Catholics understand the Pope to be integral to the church’s organization. As the New Testament suggests, there are different roles or “parts” in the Body of Christ for the sake of the “unity of the faith” (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:13). Well, the Pope is understood to be, in very real sense, part of Christ’s will for the constitution of His church.

Consider this. If one were to go backward in time, one would see that Benedict XVI served before the current pope, Francis. John Paul II served before Benedict. And so on. One pope preceded the other, and that pope was preceded by another—all the way back to the first century. (The title “Pope,” from papa, was a later development. But it simply identifies the bishop of Rome.)  265 men before Francis, one would arrive at a man named Peter, who ended his last years ministering to and organizing the Christian community in Rome.

Peter was among Jesus’ original twelve apostles, but he occupied a chief role of leadership among them. He would often speak for the twelve (Mk. 8:29; Jn. 6:67). In the four gospels, he’s often named first in the lists of Apostles—sometimes just “Peter and his companions” (Mk. 3:16; Lk. 9:32). He preached on Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended and energized the young church (Acts 2). Peter was also the first to receive the revelation that the Gospel was to be given to even the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-48). He presided over the first major council of the church in Jerusalem, which decided important matters for non-Jewish converts to the Christian faith (Acts 15:7-11).

Jesus singled out Peter when he told him that he would be the “rock” upon which Christ would build his church (Matt. 16:18). In the same passage, Jesus said he would give Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” recalling the Old Testament figure of royal steward who served under the Davidic king (Matt. 16:19; Isa. 22:22). Jesus, the new Davidic king, is in effect making Peter the steward of His church. He also gives him the authority to “bind and loose,” representing the ability to make disciplinary decisions for the community.

After his Resurrection, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, makes Peter shepherd of His Church by charging him to “feed” and “tend” his “sheep” (John 21:15-19).

Clearly, then, Peter was head of the young church. But was Peter’s shepherding role only meant for the first-century church—until his martyrdom in the mid-60s? If the newfound Christian community needed leadership in the first century, surely the church in the second century—who would be without the Apostles!—would still need leadership. And this goes for the third, and the fourth, and the fifth… all the way down to the twenty-first century—especially the twenty-first century!

In fact, early Christians not only recognized the bishop of Rome as succeeding Peter in a historical sense, but also in his capacity as leader of the church as well. Consider Clement, who was bishop of Rome in the late first century—perhaps third in succession to Peter. Under his leadership, the church in Rome sent a strong letter of correction to the church in Corinth, which was experiencing serious internal division. It seems that the Corinthian church may have even appealed to Rome. Regardless, both the Roman and Corinthian Christians understood that the church of Rome had a special pastoral role in the universal church—even having the ability to mingle in the affairs of Christian communities in other parts of the world.

We get a hint of the reasoning for this from a second-century Christian, Irenaeus of Lyons. In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains how one can discern what is in fact authentic Christianity—as opposed to the Gnostic counterfeits of his day.  After emphasizing the need to consult those churches founded by the Apostles and the bishops who succeeded them, he goes on to highlight the church of Rome as the preeminent model of Christian orthodoxy. Because of its “superior origin” in Peter and Paul, “all the faithful in the whole world” must agree with it. He then goes on to list the twelve bishops of Rome since Peter, from whom “the preaching of the truth has come down to us.”

Above all, the role of the Pope is for the sake of the Church’s unity. “A primacy is given to Peter,” says third-century Cyprian of Carthage, “whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church.” The bishop of Rome occupies this so-called “chair of Peter,” from which “sacerdotal unity has its source.” The Pope is the visible head of the church. Like Peter, who often spoke as representative of the twelve, the Pope is able to definitively speak for the faith of the church. He’s not there to change the faith. He doesn’t receive special divine revelation, like a prophet. No, his sole purpose is to guard the apostolic teaching and shepherd Christ’s flock in their walk of faith. Contrary to all the media hype whenever there’s a new pope, the church’s doctrine’s isn’t going to change just because there’s a new occupant in Peter’s chair. Pope Francis once affirmed how he was a faithful “son of the church” when asked about his teaching. It’s simply not the Pope’s job to concoct doctrine out of the blue.

At this point, it would be good to clarify what it means for the Pope to be infallible, because it’s often misunderstood. Basically, because the Holy Spirit guides the church, and because the Pope is the visible representative of the church, then it follows that God will not allow the Pope to lead the church astray on matters of the faith. Because Christ promised that the “gates of hell” would “not prevail” against the church (Matt. 16:18), then the Pope will never declare as official dogma something that is actually false. So, for example, the Pope will never officially proclaim that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. If something like this could happen, then the church would be seriously misled, and Christ’s promise would seem to have been broken.

Note that infallibility does not protect the Pope from sin. He’s a mere mortal like anyone else, with his own weaknesses and capacity for scandal. Thankfully, the church has been quite blessed in recent decades with exceptionally holy fathers. And most have sought to serve the church—some even to the point of martyrdom. That said, one shouldn’t be shocked to run into a real scoundrel here or there. (I’m thinking of a few Renaissance popes.) Even Peter denied Christ.

The Pope’s infallibility is not separated from the church’s infallibility. Rather, because the Pope is sign of the church’s unity, the Pope’s role offers a particular manifestation of it. Infallibility is a negative gift: it’s simply the freedom from doctrinal error. It’s not divine inspiration. The Pope’s words are not God’s words. And, of course, not everything the Pope says is infallible. At all. In fact, it’s understood to be reserved only for those solemn occasions when the Pope is definitively settling a matter of faith to be held by the entire church.  Mind you, this doesn’t happen often. The most recent was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII’s dogmatically defined Mary’s assumption into Heaven.

St. Gregory the Great, one of the greatest figures of the early medieval papacy. Pope until 604, Gregory was a talented administrator, a prolific writer, and a famed contributor to the liturgy. At a time when the empire was centered in Constantinople, Pope Gregory acted as a strong leader for the people of Rome.

The Pope in the modern world has the same basic role as did Peter nearly 2,000 years ago: to confirm his brethren in the faith. The Pope acts as teacher on a daily basis when he gives speeches and homilies for special events and liturgies. More exceptionally, the Pope exercises his teaching authority when he writes official documents ranging from encyclicals, like Francis’ recent one on the environment, to the weightier apostolic constitutions, which deal with important doctrinal matters. As pastor, the Pope meets with his fellow bishops, visits other countries, and attends special events such as World Youth Day.

By expressing the papacy as a role of service—something Francis is quite good at—the Pope is able to bring Christ to others as he sets an example of what it means to be follower of Christ. One traditional title of the Pope, going all the way back to St. Gregory the Great, is servus servorum Dei, or Servant of the Servants of God. This encapsulates the type of leadership the Pope is called to. After all, according to Christ, the “greatest” or “first” is the one who is “servant of all” (Mk. 9:34-36).

Pope Francis washes the feet of refugees.

Now the elephant in the room. Catholics understand the papal office to be an essential part of the church’s original “constitution” and therefore consider alternative church structures to be lacking an important gift. In this way, the Pope is (meant to be) pastor of all Christians. But what about Christians who aren’t Catholic? Naturally, non-Catholic Christians have historically had their own thoughts on the papacy, ranging from respect to repudiation. Eastern Orthodox and other Christians who recognize the Pope’s historical primacy tend to downplay the biblical foundations for Rome’s authority—as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on the role of Peter, for example. Still, many view the Pope as an important witness to and teacher of the Christian faith.

On the flip side, during the Protestant Reformation, some reformers said damning things about the Pope—some going so far as to call him the antichrist! Even today, it is not hard to find groups that strongly reject the Pope. As unfortunate as that may be, today the Pope is increasingly playing a key role in ecumenical dialogue. More and more, the Pope meets with other Christian figures to give a common witness in faith and charity.

While in the past rejection of the papacy may have been an inevitable consequence of separation from the Catholic Church, there is arguably no inherent reason why non-Catholics today cannot recognize the Pope’s ancient—and even biblical—roots and thereby appreciate his role as a global Christian leader.

Pope Francis smiles with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the end of vespers prayers at the monastery church of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome
Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (left) & Pope Francis (right)




10 thoughts on “Primer on the Pope”

    1. This response overviews the reformers’ criticism of the papacy. Naturally, if you’re going to justify splitting off of the Catholic Church, you’re going to have to distance yourself from the Bishop of Rome. It’s no wonder they called the pope the “antichrist.” It wouldn’t make sense for Calvin and Luther to be all friendly towards the office of Pope and then think they are fully able to go out and start their own churches.


      1. Okay, Patric. The Lord Jesus Christ is enough for unity, only one Head – Himself. I praise God that the Lord called me out of an institution where I never heard the Gospel and that He found me, delivering me from sin and death.

        John Calvin did not start a church, he was called to serve in various churches.


      2. Mormons also profess Jesus Christ. So do Jehovah Witnesses. Do you think that simply professing Christ is enough to be one in faith? Catholics don’t disagree that Christ is head of the church. But he has also given various roles to the members of his body, the church. The Bible uses the term “bishop” which means overseer. Christ gave us pastors. The Pope is the pastor of the church on Earth, just as Peter was the leader of the early church community. Also, just because one is “born Catholic” does not mean every experience you have in the church will be ideal. Besides, Catholics fully acknowledge that God works outside the visible Catholic Church. Any person who is baptized is related to Christ and the church, though imperfectly if not benefitting from all the gifts Christ wanted, like the Eucharist or the papacy.


      3. I am sorry you never heard the gospel. It’s the fault of other Catholics, if they never presented Christ to you. But please note that every Catholic Mass is a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, with multiple scriptural readings from both Old Testament, psalms, and the New Testament. The Eucharist and the liturgy have been the center of Christian worship since the first century. Remember Justin Martyr in the second century who described Christian practices to the Roman government at the time. He explains the readings of scripture and the Eucharist, which he says Christians profess to be Christ’s own body and blood. I just don’t want you to leave the Eucharist. You can always have a personal relationship with Christ in the fullness of his church.


  1. I prefer not to make my theology from novel innovations of men but instead rely on the consistent understanding of the nature of the church from the first century on. The author of that response even quotes Cyprian of Carthage, in some weird attempt to show that he didn’t have a catholic notion of the papacy. All one has to do is read Cyprian’s Unity of the Church and see that he clearly sees the bishop of Rome as playing a central role in the church. Cyprian says one who breaks off of Peter is in schism. Surely the author of that post would not agree with Cyprian there.


  2. Patric, thank you for being concerned. There are some things about my upbringing and education I appreciate. For one thing in the lesson from the Gospels I regularly heard the Lord’s warnings about hell and this gave me a fear of God. But I can’t go back. I appreciate Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Protestants and Evangelicals need to be reverent. In our church the Pastor always warns us not to partake unworthily. I believe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is seated at the right hand of the Father from whence He will return to us, and that He is spiritually with us as we share the bread and wine, remembering His death until He returns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As long as we can say with Ignatius, who knew the apostles Peter and Paul, that the Eucharist is the “the flesh of Jesus Christ, the same flesh which suffered for our sins,” then we are of apostolic faith. Anything less is not what the church has passed on from the Apostles and Christ’s own words, who told us that his his flesh is “real food” and his blood is “real drink” (John 6). God bless!


      1. Patric,

        Rather than answer your argument, let me tell you what I believe and confess about the Sacrament or Ordinance of The Lord’s Supper:

        Westminster Confession of Faith

        Chapter XXIX – Of the Lord’s Supper

        I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.[1]

        II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead;[2] but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same:[3] so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.[4]

        III. The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants;[5] but to none who are not then present in the congregation.[6]

        IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other alone;[7] as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people,[8] worshipping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.[9]

        V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ;[10] albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.[11]

        VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthrows the nature of the sacrament, and has been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yes, of gross idolatries.[12]

        VII. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament,[13] do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.[14]

        VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries,[15] or be admitted thereunto.[16]

        The footnotes are Scriptural references in my printed copy. There are so many of these that often they fill half or more than half of many pages. The Westminster Assembly, which formulated the Confession, met from 1643-1647.


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