8 Things Every Catholic Needs to Know about the Pope


1.  The Pope is not the head of the Church.

Many news reports continue to identify the Pope as the head of the Church.  While understandable, they are incorrect.  Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  Another way to describe the Pope is as the earthly shepherd of the Church.

2.  The Pope is a bishop.

The Pope is first of all a bishop – the Bishop of Rome.  He is Pope because he is the Bishop of Rome, not the other way around.  As Bishop of Rome, he is part of a community, a college, of all the bishops in the world.

3.  The Pope is the head of the bishops.

As Bishop of Rome, the Pope is the head of all the other bishops.  And, because all the bishops are united, the Pope is also a sign of unity of the worldwide Church.  As a sign of unity, he helps us realize that our Catholicism is truly universal and not limited only to a single parish or diocese.  The Church is the body of Christ that transcends time and space.  The Pope is the symbol and the image of that universality.

4.  We used to have lots of “Popes”.

The word Pope comes from the Greek word pappos, which means father.  It was originally a word used for all clergy (the way we call all priests “Father” today.)  Gradually, only bishops were referred to as Popes.  By the ninth century, only the Bishop of Rome was called “Pope”.

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5.  The Pope has a special chair.

Like all bishops, the Pope has an important symbol:  a chair, or throne, or seat.  Every bishop has a chair, which is a symbol of his teaching authority.  The chair is called a cathedra, and the building where the chair exists is called a cathedral.  The Pope’s cathedral is not St. Peter’s Basilica, but rather St. John Lateran in Rome.

6.  Retired Popes are not infallible.

You might have heard the phrase ex cathedra.  To speak ex cathedra means to speak from the chair.  When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking with his full teaching authority.  It is when he teaches ex cathedra that we say the Pope is teaching infallibly.  The authority to teach infallibly resides with the office (the one who sits in the chair) and not the individual.  So it is now impossible for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to speak ex cathedra since he no longer holds the teaching authority of the office.

7.  The Pope rarely teaches ex cathedra.

Ordinarily, the Pope teaches in concert with all of the bishops as a sign of the unity that was mentioned before.  So the use of his authority to teach ex cathedra  is quite rare.  It has only happened twice in the history of the Church, or at least in the modern Church: Pope Pius IX’s declaration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854 and Pope Pius XII’s teaching about Mary’s Assumption in 1950.  Neither of these were new teachings.  In both cases, the Popes were clarifying and confirming existing beliefs.  So the Pope isn’t dashing off infallible statements every day – or usually ever.

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8.  The Holy Spirit chooses the Pope.

A final point to clear up is how the Pope gets chosen.  The Holy Spirit chooses the Pope.  Most Catholics believe that, but sometimes the way we say it implies the Spirit is working in an extraordinary, miraculous way instead of in an ordinary way.  Ordinarily, the Holy Spirit works through the gifts that have been given to ordinary, fallible human beings.  Since 1059, the cardinals have been charged with selecting the Pope. They have gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they are duty bound to use those gifts to bring to bear as best they can in selecting the Pope.  Just like all humans, they can make mistakes, and they can also make wise, inspired decisions.  What doesn’t happen is that the Holy Spirit somehow swoops down out of Heaven and picks one guy that nobody was ever thinking of before.  The cardinals pray, debate, discuss, collaborate, and vote until two-thirds of them agree on who they believe the Holy Spirit is guiding them to choose.

Credit: St. Anthony of Padua Parish