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Frequently Asked Questions About the Pope

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Here are some frequently asked questions about the pope to share with your students.

What is the pope? The pope is the bishop of the Church of Rome, Italy. Because of the importance of Rome, Tradition recognizes the pope as the supreme pastor of all Christians.

Why is the Church of Rome so important? For us as Catholics, the authority of our faith must connect to the person of Jesus Christ. Matthew 16:18 reads, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." The Church teaches that this passage serves as evidence that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the Church. After Jesus rose from the dead, Tradition holds that Peter preached the Gospel in Rome and also became the leader of the Church of Rome. For this reason, the Church of Rome is seen as the principle Church among all the others in the world.

Has there always been a pope? Catholic Tradition tells us there has always been a pope, that is, there has always been a bishop for the Church of Rome. However, the word pope was first used to describe this bishop between the years A.D. 65 and A.D. 130.

What does the word pope mean? It is derived from the Latin word pappas, which means "father."

If Peter was the first pope, who was the second pope? Tradition holds that Peter was the bishop of Rome from A.D. 32 to A.D. 67. The next bishop of Rome was Saint Linus from A.D. 67 to A.D. 76.

How many popes have there been? There have been 266 popes.

Who can be the pope? Any Catholic priest can be elected pope. However, if the man elected pope is not a bishop, he must immediately be ordained a bishop.

How is someone chosen? The process for electing the pope has varied through the centuries. Currently, the procedure is for the cardinals of the Church to assemble in Rome after the death of the pope for the election. These cardinals must not be older than 80. The new pope must be chosen by a two-thirds majority of the cardinals. He is elected by secret ballot. If no pope is chosen, the ballots are burned along with a substance that creates black smoke. The black smoke indicates to the outside world that a pope has not been elected. When a pope has been elected, the ballots alone are burned. The resulting white smoke indicates to the outside world that a pope has been elected.

What is a cardinal? A cardinal is the bishop of a city significant to the faith development of a particular country. The word cardinal means "hinge." Cardinals are the hinges or the key people in the direction of the Church. Nine cardinals are in the United States.

Why do we have a pope? With "vicar" as its root, vicariously means to act through another. We believe that Christ still acts within and through the Church. This means that Christ acts vicariously through the Church. As the supreme pastor of the Church, the pope is the Vicar of Christ. We believe that Christ ministers to the Church through the pope.

What does Vicar of Christ mean? The Church is the Body of Christ. Through Baptism, a person becomes a member of this Body. Each person is a member of the Body just as eyes and ears are members of our own bodies. Of this Body, Christ alone is the head. It is Christ who leads, it is Christ who teaches, and it is Christ who guides. As the supreme shepherd of the Church, Christ leads the Church through the pope.

If the pope is the Vicar of Christ, can the pope ever be wrong? Yes, the pope can be wrong. However, when he speaks ex cathedra, we believe he speaks without error.

What does ex cathedra mean? Ex cathedra is a Latin phrase that means "from the chair." When the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking on matters regarding faith and morals. In these cases, we believe he is without error.

Does he speak ex cathedra a lot? No. He has spoken ex cathedra only twice. Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary to be without error in 1854, and in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that Mary's body and soul were assumed into heaven.

What does the pope do? In the nineteenth Century, the First Vatican Council said the pope's mission and purpose is three-fold: (1) to ensure the unity of faith among Christians, (2) to see to the lasting good of the Church, and (3) to make sure all the world's bishops are in harmony. He is the Church's visible sign of unity.

Who does the pope lead? Catholics see the pope as the leader and supreme pastor of all Christians. However, not all Christians recognize his leadership.

Who recognizes his leadership? All Catholic Churches are united as one with the pope. The largest Church is the Roman Catholic Church. But there are others. Armenian Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, and Melkite Catholics are but a few of the independent Churches that recognize the bishop of Rome as their supreme pastor and the symbol of unity among all believers.


(Copyright © 2003 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for the free use of this article for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the written permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095, or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.)