What is a pope?

The word pope is an English adaptation of the Latin word “papa” (a child’s affectionate word for father). From the third to the fifth centuries words like papa or abba were used of bishops to describe their role as a spiritual father. By the third century the term “pope” began to be used as a title solely for the bishops of Rome.

The oldest title and role that a pope retains is that of bishop of Rome. The church also regards the pope as the successor of Peter, the chief of the apostles. As such he exercises a primacy over the entire Church, as defined by the First Vatican Council (1869). The role of the pope as spiritual leader of the whole church has come more and more to define what a pope “does.”

In recent times, there have been some significant changes in the pope’s “job profile.” From the 4th through the middle of the 19th century, popes were the temporal governors of the Papal States, which constituted about a third of present day Italy. The papacy lost control over the Papal States during the campaign for the unification of Italy. For a few years thereafter, each pope described himself as a “prisoner of the Vatican” and refused to set foot outside even to visit the churches in his own diocese.

In the Lateran Treaty (1924) the pope gave up his claim to rule over the Papal States and the Italian government in turn recognized the sovereign State of Vatican City with the pope as its temporal ruler. Yet by this time popes had firmly established the custom of never leaving the Vatican. When Pope John XXIII visited parishes and a jail in Rome and even took a train to Assisi, it brought a revolution in the world’s understanding of the pope’s relationship to the world. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II completed the transformation of the pope’s role from being “prisoner of the Vatican” into being “the world’s pilgrim.”

John Allen, in his book Conclave (Image/Doubleday: New York, 2002), lists some of the responsibiliities of a present day pope (pp. 9-37). Day-to-day administrative tasks in the archdiocese of Rome are delegated to a cardinal vicar, and a governor (recently the American Cardinal Edmund Szoka) oversees the administration of Vatican City. This gives the pope more time to concentrate on his role as chief teacher, the ultimate voice on church doctrine. He frequently exercises this through written documents, and in particular encyclicals (formal pastoral letters addressed to the entire church and concerning a moral, doctrinal, or disciplinary issue).

Popes also direct the life of the church through the appointment of bishops throughout the world, the appointments of the leaders and members of the Roman curia (the central administrative offices of the church), and the setting and implementation of church (“canon”) law. Beginning in the 20th century the pope has established an increasingly influential role as a spiritual leader outside the formal membership of the church. Since Pope Leo XIII (1892) the popes have been a strong advocate for world peace and social justice, and since John XXIII popes have lent their spiritual and moral authority to promote growth in Christian unity and a dialogue with other world religions.

Since its loss of temporal power in 1870, the papacy has grown ever more influential as a symbol of faith and transcendence in the world. In recent years popes have described their primary role as that of “a servant of the servants of God,” a title first attributed to Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).

Who is eligible to be elected pope? Since the pope is elected by those members of the college of cardinals under the age of 80, the presumption has been that the new pope will be among their number. This has usually been the case in past papal elections. The 117 cardinals are most likely to vote for someone they have encountered personally. They know their own members better than the much larger group of bishops who are not cardinals.

This may not be as true as it once was, however. When the college of cardinals was much smaller (70 or less) and composed chiefly of Italians, some personal knowledge of the main candidates could be assumed. Today the cardinals voting at the conclave will come from nearly every country of the world. They speak different languages (although most will be more or less conversant in Latin) and many do not know one another well. Some have worked on Vatican Commissions or encountered each other at synods (periodic gatherings of bishops in Rome). Information dispensed through the media has become more important than it may once have been for the cardinals who do not live and work in Rome. They acquire important information as we do, from newspaper and television reports. But the most useful knowledge comes from the interaction among the cardinals once they enter the conclave and the insight granted by the Holy Spirit.

One does not have to be a member of the college of cardinals to be eligible for election as pope. The last non-cardinal to receive serious support in a conclave was Archbishop Giovanni Montini of Milan in 1958. Although not a cardinal, he was widely known as a bishop of considerable administrative skill and experience, and received some votes in the conclave which elected Pope John XXIII. John soon created Montini a cardinal, and in the conclave of 1963 he succeeded John as Pope Paul VI.

The new pope doesn’t have to be a bishop at the time of his election, although he must be ordained a bishop before he can take on the duties of the bishop of Rome. Prior to 1960 some cardinals were not bishops. Pope John XXIII required all cardinals to be ordained as bishops in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. However, some newly created cardinals have been exempted from this requirement, such as the Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles. The last person elected pope when he was not a bishop was Cardinal Cappellari, a Camaldolese monk, in 1831. He was soon after ordained as bishop of Rome under the name Gregory XVI.

Although the cardinals over the age of 80 do not participate in the election, they are eligible to be elected as pope. There have been popes elected in their 30’s and others who were well over the age of 80.

When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978 he was the first non-Italian since the Dutch Hadrian VI (1523). With the internationalization of the college of cardinals, it is far more feasible that a candidate from a country other than Italy be elected pope. If that were to happen, the cardinals seem inclined to elect someone from a small country rather than from a superpower like the United States.