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Who is the pope? Part one

February 23, 2013
I remember 8 years ago when we heard about the new Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. I have to be honest, it was a difficult news to digest since we were still mourning the loss of John Paul II.
At the time we were working on the second season of our teen series, In Your Faith (in fact, when I heard the announcement, I was with Fr. Graham Keep filming one of his Church 101 segments) and we were planning an episode on the papacy, Who is the Pope?
It was a hard episode to write. You see, John Paul II was such a good pope. He had been pope since I was 9 years old. I remember his visit to Panama in 1984. I was there. Now, many of us felt as if we had lost a grandfather. For many young people he was the only pope they ever knew. We had such good memories of JPII at World Youth Day 2002. I felt that it was going to be hard to get used to Benedict.
But in writing the episode, I realised that we didn’t have to worry. And now, we have good memories of this papacy as well.
In writing the episode, I learned quite a bit too about the papacy and our Church history.
I learned that the word “pontiff” comes from the Latin word pontifex, which means bridge-builder. The word “pope” comes from the Latin, "papa", which, of course, means father. Because it was the word used for "patriarch", as in "head of the family", it became used to signify "priest" and "bishop". At the beginning of the 3rd century, 'papa' was a term of respect for churchmen in high positions; by the 5th century, it was applied particularly to the Bishop of Rome. Isn’t it a good idea to have a 'papa' as the head of the Church? After all, we are a family, right?
Of the 265 popes, 205 have been Italians, and of these, 106 have been Roman. 19 popes have been French, and 14 have been Greek. There have also been 8 Syrian popes, 6 Germans, 3 Africans, 2 Spaniards, 1 Austrian, 1 Palestinian, 1 Englishman, 1 Dutchman, and 1 polish pope. And, can we say that we’ve had one Jewish pope? Saint Peter.
When popes are elected, they take on a new name to signify their new life. The most common name that popes have chosen is John, which has been used 23 times, followed by Gregory and Benedict, which have both been used 16 times. 43 names have been used only once and only two popes have taken two names: John Paul I and John Paul II. John Paul I chose that name to signify unity with his two predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. Popes can choose any name they want. The only name that is out of bounds is "Peter". [And Jesús. Jesús is also out of bounds.]
There is a story that there was once a woman pope (which is really just a myth), but there were popes who were married (and I don’t mean St. Peter). We have to remember that the middle ages were pretty nutty. The Church was really not what it is today. That’s the time period when we had all the antipopes. That happened when two popes were elected at the same time. Things were pretty crazy. We've come a long way since then.
The longest pontificate was Pius IX (1846-78), which lasted 32 years. The shortest was Stephen II (March 752), which lasted just one day. 81 popes have been canonized; 8 have been beatified and there have been 38 antipopes. Remember, antipope doesn’t mean antichrist; two antipopes are revered as saints.
There have been three “great” popes, considered great by the people for having done great deeds: Leo I (440-61), who convoked the Council of Chalcedon where the matter of the two natures of Christ in one divine person was settled once and for all; Gregory I (590-604), who introduced the Gregorian calendar and Gregorian chant. He also revitalised the Mass. Despite his many accomplishments, he took the title “servant of the servants of God”, one of the official titles of the pope to this day.
Last (but not least) of the Great popes is Pope Nicholas I (858-67), who is known for his charity and justice. He was a champion of the poor, a patron of the arts and a reformer of clergy and laity alike. A lot of people think that John Paul II was also great. Perhaps he will be the fourth pope to have that title.
There are many titles for the pope: Servant of the servants of God, Vicar of Christ, Successor of Peter, Bishop of Rome, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; Holy Father; His Holiness and, as we learned earlier, Ponfiff.
Next time we’ll continue looking at the papacy and why we even have popes at all. And to learn more about In Your Faith and all the awesome topics that we tackle on the show, visit the show's website.
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