The Pope: His Duties, Clothes, History, Peter and How He Is Selected

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Pope Francis in Korea

The Pope is technically the bishop Rome. Catholics believe that he is the successor of St. Peter, who is considered the first pope. The word "pontif" comes from the Latin word “pontifex” ("bridge builder," as between God and humanity). The word Pope is derived from the Latin word “papa” or the Greek word “pappas”, child’s terms for “father.”

The papacy — the Holy See — has endured for 1,500 years in what is purportedly an unbroken succession, a fact which is close to, but not quite, the truth. Of the 266 popes recognized by the Catholic church, many of the early ones were at best bishops of Rome, who were recognized as popes hundreds of years after their death. Thirty-seven were "false or antipopes.” St. Peter, one of Jesus’s Apostle, was technically the first Pope. He is said to have served from around A.D. 30 to 64. But some reports say he never even visited Rome. He was purportedly succeeded by St. Linus (served A.D. 64-76). Most of the early popes were canonized as saints.

Pope Francis is the 266th Pope. That number includes “The Pope is also known as “Santissimo Padre (Holy Father), or as “Anuario Pontificio” (Your Holiness). His title, which covers nine lines of type in the “Annuario Pontificio” begins with "Bishop Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ," and ends with "Servant of God."Catholicism is the only major religion that invests so much central power in a single man. The Pope is generally assisted in his curia (Vatican's bureaucracy) and unites the college of bishops around him for councils and synods.

While Americans refer to their leader as "the" President, members of Vatican refer to their leader as "this" Pope, reflecting the fact that he is but one man in a succession that has lasted 2,000 years and hopes to last a few thousand more. One is supposed to address the Pope as “your holiness.” U.S. President George W. Bush called him sir. According to a prominent French letter writing guide, one should finish a letter to the Pope with; "Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness and imploring the favor of its apostolic benediction, I have the honor to be, Very Holy Father, with the deepest veneration of your holiness, the most humble and most obedient servant and son/daughter."

Websites and Resources Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; Lives of the Saints: ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ;

History of the Pope

Constantine the Great (272 –337), the Roman emperor from A.D. 306 to 337, Christianized the Roman emperor and established the blueprint for the patriarchs in what would become the Orthodox Christian Church. Michael J. McClymond wrote in “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: In the Western, Latin-speaking empire, it was not the Christian emperor but rather the Roman bishop, or pope, who set the tone for the historical development of Christianity. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

black smoke if no selection for a pope is made

Within a century after Constantine, the bishops of Rome referred to themselves as the pontifex maximus (supreme pontiff), a title that had belonged to the pagan Caesars. Because of the relative weakness of political authority in the Western empire, the popes could not avoid playing a political role. When Huns and Vandals threatened Italy in 452 and 455, for example, it was Pope Leo I who represented the city of Rome in negotiations. Rome's prestige also grew from its association with the apostles Peter and Paul, who were both said to have died there.

As early as the second century, some Christian writers suggested that Rome might serve as a kind of supreme court for church disputes. There gradually emerged the idea of "Petrine primacy," asserting that Peter and his successors in Rome, the popes, had authority over the whole of the church. In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII issued the statement Unam Sanctam ("One Holy"), declaring that it was necessary for salvation to submit to the pope.

The process of defining the authority of the popes did not reach its culmination until 1870, however, when Pope Pius IX led the First Vatican Council, though with dissent among bishops, to state that the pope possesses infallibility when he makes an official declaration (ex cathedra) concerning the Catholic faith. The claims of Petrine primacy in the early church and of papal authority in the medieval and modern periods have played a role in the estrangement between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and they were decisive in the emergence of the Protestant Reformation during the 1500s. Certain Eastern churches known as Eastern Rite (also called Eastern Catholic or Uniate) recognized the primacy of Rome and yet retained their non-Latin liturgies. These include the Maronites of Lebanon and the Eastern Rite Catholics of Ukraine.

Peter in Rome — The Basis for the Pope

Catholic tradition claims that the pope’s authority extends directly back to Saint Peter. As we said before St. Peter, one of Jesus’s Apostle, was technically the first Pope. He is said to have served from around A.D. 30 to 64. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Cardinals are required to swear an oath of fidelity to “Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff.” Peter, of course, is the Apostle Peter, the Galilean fisherman who, according to tradition and official Catholic teaching, became the first Bishop of Rome and the “rock” on which Jesus founded his church. It is precisely because the Pope—as Bishop of Rome—is the heir to Peter that he has authority over other church leaders and bodies.

The scriptural basis for this is Matthew 16 from the New Testament, which goes: 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

It was only with Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century that the Bishop of Rome started to cite Matthew 16 as proof of Papal supremacy, and characterize himself as the “heir” of Peter. The context in which Pope Leo invoked his authority as descendent of the Apostle was in conversations with other bishops. Pope Leo and, later, Popes Gelasius and Gregory the Great called themselves heirs of Peter when they were trying to control, diminish, or outwit other rival Church leaders. As Demacopoulos puts it, rhetorical claims of papal authority “were almost always born of insecurity and weakness.”

What this means is that the idea of popes as descendants of St. Peter is about controlling bishops, not churchgoers. This isn’t about the subjugation of the masses; it’s about commanding the loyalty of powerful elites. Good news for those lay media pundits, financiers, and political leaders who feel that Francis has really gotten carried away with this whole “caring for the poor” thing.

But Did Peter Ever Go to Rome

St Peter

A book published in 2014 argues that Peter never even set foot in Rome. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast, What if Peter was never the first Bishop of Rome? What if the idea of a Supreme Pontiff emerged hundreds of years after Peter’s death? This is precisely what a new book by Fordham University theology professor George Demacopoulos proposes. In “The Invention of Peter”, Demacopoulos argues that Peter never visited the city of Rome, never founded a church there, and was not the first Pope. In fact, the very idea of Peter as the Supreme Pontiff and leader of a worldwide church is a much later idea that took its rise in the ecclesial politics of the fifth century. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 27, 2014]

The evidence for Peter visiting—much less dying in—Rome is pretty thin on the ground. It simply never comes up in the New Testament: the Acts of the Apostles, our first history of the Jesus movement, never mentions Peter journeying to Rome. And when Paul nervously greets the Christian community there in his Letter to the Romans, he never refers to Peter’s presence in the city. In the two letters attributed to Peter in the New Testament the author is said to be writing “from Babylon.” Babylon could be a euphemism for Rome or it could just be a metaphor for imagined exile.

The earliest references to Peter’s presence in Rome come from the second century and from texts that appear to have been written in Asia Minor. There are no first-century documents that explicitly state that Peter died in Rome. Much less any Christian authors talking about Peter and Peter’s heirs as commanding special power over the church.

While papal discourse starts to heat up over the second and third centuries, no one appealed to Peter as the rock of the church or the holder of the keys of heaven until the fourth. There was a bishop of Rome, to be sure, but there was no Supreme Pontiff, and it is difficult to concretely tie the legacy of these bishops back to Peter himself. “The Invention of Peter” is not the first book to question the role of Peter and the foundations of the Papacy. In a book that created quite a stir in Catholic circles in his native Germany in 2010, Otto Zweirlein also argued that Peter never went to Rome. And the shadowy origins of papal memoirs and biographies have already been exposed by U.K.-based scholars Kate Cooper and Julia Hilner.

What Demacopoulos adds to our knowledge is an understanding of why the idea of a Supreme Pontiff emerged in the fourth century and how appeals to papal authority worked. And this is where things get interesting. Generations of Catholic schoolchildren may have learned that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16, but early Christians didn’t give the passage second thought until the fourth century.

In truth there is more and earlier evidence for the authority of the bishop of Rome than The Invention of Peter provides. Christian leaders in second-century Gaul consulted the Bishop of Rome about ecclesiastical politics, and fourth-century schismatics often appealed to Rome for a decision. All the same, Demacopoulos is on solid ground when he writes that “so much of the way we think about the early papacy and the individual bishops of Rome has been shaped by later papal activists who were eager to spread Roman influence in their own period.”

Selection of a New Pope

The new Pope is elected inside the Sistine Chapel where all the world's cardinals gather, each sitting on a throne, which in turn is covered by a canopy. When the name of the new Pope is announced all but one of the cardinals pulls a rope, causing the canopy's to fall. Only the canopy of the new Pope remains in position. He is then asked if he will accept the position (secrecy cloaks whether anyone has ever refused) and if he says yes the ring of the fisherman (St.Peter) is slipped on his finger and he announces his name. [Source: Aubrey Menen, National Geographic, December 1971]

After a Pope dies an election to choose a new one is held at the Vatican. Any of the hundred or so cardinals under the age is 80 is eligible to vote and serve as the new pope. A two-thirds majority plus one is necessary to chose a new Pope in the first round although a simple majority is enough after a few days (according to reforms implemented by Pope John Paul II). Balloting is held until the one Pope receives the necessary votes. When a Pope is selected he is asked in Latin: "In accordance with the canon law do you accept?"

Sometimes, in the past, it seemingly took forever to secure the two thirds plus one majority to choose a pope. According to a new rules decreed by Pope John Paul II in 1996, a two thirds majority is no longer necessary for the selection of the new pontiff. Under the new rules, if no candidate wins during the first 12 or 13 days of secret balloting, then a rule can be evoked to select the Pope with an absolute majority. Scholars say the new rules could lengthen the conclaves as cardinal will be more likely to stay with a first choice than change their mind.

Papal Enclave, the meeting in the Sistine Chapel to select the new pope

During the conclave in 2006 after Pope John II’s death, the cardinals were given more comfortable quarters, in the hotel-like St. Martins Guest House, 150 meters from the Sistine Chapel. In the past some were forced to sleep on a cot in a room with little more than a reading light.

According to the new rules, secrecy on the choice of the new Pope is strictly enforced. The cardinals will not be allowed to use phones, computes, cell phones, faxes or other communications devices. Quarters are regularly searched for bugs. Housekeepers and service staff that leak information to the press risk excommunication.

Politics and Selection of a New Pope

Before some elections, the Cardinals cut deals in the Vatican bathrooms. In 1996, the Holy See ruled that future popes could no longer be elected by "acclamation" or sudden consensus. Such decisions were reportedly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

St. Leo the Great (Pope from 440 to 461) said that any method of selecting the Pope other than a free vote by priests and people was sinful. Up until a thousand years ago, cardinals made their chose and then announced their selections on a balcony . If the crowd cheered the man was chosen pope, if he was booed the cardinals made another selection.

In the Renaissance, cardinals "met in the Vatican privies to barter votes during papal elections." Commenting on the slowness of selecting a pope, St. Bonaventure suggested in 1271 taking off the roof where the Cardinals were meeting and limiting them to bread and water.

Announcement of the New Pope

There are four ballots a day, voting sheets are burned. If no one is elected, straw is added to the voting sheets and black smoke rises from the chapel's chimney. When a new Pope is chosen no straw is added and the smoke is white and the crowd waiting in Piazza San Pietro outside St. Peter’s Cathedral erupts in celebration.

After the new Pope has been selected he rests a while on a couch. Three sets of robes are waiting — large medium and small. He is dressed and his red slippers are put at his feet. But the clothes never fit just right. He is then introduced. As one priest put it: "Imagine yourself a Pope [going through all this, when] your shoes pinch and your cassock is tight under your arms. [Source: Aubrey Menen, National Geographic, December 1971]

Once elected, a Pope is not held accountable for any promises made as a cardinal. During their ordination mass priests have to prostrate themselves on the floor of St. Peter's Basilica as they take their vows.

Reign and Life of Popes

Most popes have been old men when they were elected pope. The average reign of a Pope is less than five years. Of the 266 popes, only 13 served longer than 20 years. The longest serving Popes were St. Peter, who served 25 years (24 to 37 years) , Alexander III, who served 22 years in the 12th century, Pope Pius IX, who served for 32 years in the 19th century and his successor Leo XIII who served for 25 years.

Pope John Paul II is an exception, he has served 27 years, from 1978 to 2005. Better health care has meant that popes in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries served longer teams than their predecessors. It has also meant that some like Pope John Paul II were very frail and in poor health during the last years of their papacy.

The Pope lives in a relatively modest apartment on the third floor of the Vatican Palace. He can address crowds in St. Peter's square from a balcony not far from his quarters. Nuns usually prepare the meals at the Vatican, and may honor special requests by the Pope. When Pope John Paul II became Pope Polish sausages were often served as well as Polish beer. Being fluent in several languages and having a strong willingness to travel are strong prerequisites among popes in the modern world. Pope John Paul II often delivered sermons, first in Latin, then in French, English, Spanish, and German, and finally in his native Polish. When he gave Easter Mass who delivered tidings in 56 languages.

Pope Clothes

Pope Benedict XVI delivering the Papal Christmas message

The pope's everyday clothing includes a zucchetto (white skullcap), soutane or cassock (with a white cape, called a mozzetta, and oversleeves,, a sash and cuffs made of water-marked silk) and a pectoral cross hanging on a chain around his neck. Pope John Paul II wore brownish-red moccasin-style loafers. The Pope is only church figure allowed to wear a white soutane.

On his finger the Pope wears the “Fisherman’s Ring,” in memory of St. Peter’s origins as a fisherman, which was used for sealing letters. Kissing the pope's ring is a long-established custom. The papal ring from the 15th century was huge. It was made of gilt bronze and contained a large rock crystal.

For Mass, the Pope wears a Miter (traditional conehead-like headware worn only at public masses), and alb (a white tunic-like garment representing grace and purity), chasuble (cloak green for Sunday Mass, the name is derived from casual, or "little house"), a pallium (wooden band worn around the neck), a stole (sign of priestly authority), an amice (a shoulder garment). concture (rope belt wrapped around the waist) and crozier (a staff with a crucified Jesus at the top).

Gammarelli's in Rome has been the official tailor of the Pope and other high officials of the Roman Catholic Church for two centuries.

Duties of the Pope

Every Wednesday morning, weather permitting, the Pope hops into a vehicle (formerly a white open-topped jeep) to present himself to the faithful and the merely curious in St. Peters Square. The driver of this small version of the Pope-mobile maneuvers past barricaded admirers so the Pope can gently brush his finger tips against the outstretched hands of those desperately trying to reach out to touch him. People shout all kinds of things but mostly its " “Viva il Papa!” ," "Long Live the Pope." And vendors sell boxes of items that are asserted to be papally blessed, despite a Vatican prohibition to label them as such.

Papal Audiences are held Wednesday, usually at 10:00am. Visitors wishing to attend the audience should pick up ticket on the Tuesday before the Wednesday they wish to attend at the Prefetira dellas Casa Pontoficia (located near the bronze doors to the right of St. Peter's Basilica). The audience is held in the Aula behind the colonnade. The Pope comes out and thanks the audience of 2,000 or 3,000 people for coming in several languages, including Polish, English, Italian, French and German.

After a sermon the Pope sometimes walks among pilgrims and poses for photographs with groups of children. He walks among the wheel-chair bound and disabled, placing his hand on a cheek or a forehead and offing a blessing.

The Pope gives homilies (religious discourse intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction) .and writes encyclicals (religious pronouncements). A Pope can submit a request to resign but the request must be approved by the College of Cardinals. If the resignation is accepted a Conclave is called to elect a new Pope.

Easter, Holy Week and the Pope

Pope Francis delivering Easter Mass

The Pope is technically a local bishop of the Roman church of St. John Lateran. During the Holy Thursday Lenten ceremony at St. John Lateran the Pope washes and kisses the feet of 12 parish priests, just as Christ had done with his 12 apostles. On Good Friday he dons the black robe on an ordinary priest and spends an hour and a half hearing the confessions of Catholics. On Friday night he bears a lightweight cross through the Coliseum and past the ruined temple of Venus.

The Lateran icon of Christ has been regularly used in church rituals at Lateran church in Rome since around A.D. 600. Encased in silver since the 13th century and repainted and repaired many times, it has two small doors over the feet which are opened on Easter Sunday by the Pope who kisses the feet of the icon and calls out three times, "The Lord is risen from the grave." The icon was reputedly made by St. Luke.

On Good Friday the red and white stole hangs from a confession booth in St. Peter's basilica meaning that the Pope himself is hearing confessions of randomly selected penitents. This is a tradition started by Pope John Paul II who has also set a record for papal travel since his election in 1978.

The Pope formally ends the period of mourning during Holy Week with an Easter vigil service at St. Peters, where a dark church is slowly filled with light while the congregation chants "Lumen Christi" ("Light of Christ") three times. At the end of the third chant the lights are fully turned on and bells ring, organs sound and candles are lit. He gives Easter greetings in 60 or so languages.


The popemobile is a specially designed motor vehicle used by the Pope during public appearances. Sometimes the Pope bring his Popemobile with him wherever he goes. Other times one is especially made for his visit. The Catholic Church demands that national insignias be removed from ambulances and other vehicles connected with the pope's visit.

Popemobile used on a trip to the Philippines was outfit with 4-inch thick bubble glass built to withstand grenades and machine-gun fire. Before the tour the Popemobile was blessed Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Cardinal of the Philippines.

There have been many different designs for popemobiles since Pope Paul VI first used a modified Lincoln Continental to greet crowds in New York City in 1965. Some are open air while others have bulletproof glass walls to enclose the pope (deemed necessary after the 1981 Pope John Paul II assassination attempt). Some allow the pope to sit, while others are designed to accommodate him standing. .

Swiss Guard: Protectors of the Pope

A Toyota Popemobile was used in the Atacama desert of Chile

The world's oldest and smallest army, the Swiss Guard, is the 100-member legion in charge of guarding the Pope, a task they have performed since 1509 when Pope Julius II hired Swiss mercenaries to battle for the Papal States. Their traditional weapon is the halberd, though guns and other weapons are kept in the barracks. After the assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II in May 1981 their training program was made more rigorous, and included instruction in karate from an Italian black-belt master. [Source: James Fallows, National Geographic, December 1985]

The puffy red and black costumes and black berets of the Swiss Guards are believed to have been designed by Michelangelo. When new members are sworn in they wear a striped navy blue and orange outfit — the colors of the Medici family — that is covered with an armored breastplate, On their heads are helmets with feathery red tassels that look like the conquistador helmets worn by Pizarro and Cortéz.

On May 6, 1527 the Swiss Guard courageously defended Pope Clement VII when Rome was attacked by the armies of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Guard was able to hold them off long to allow Pope Clement VII to escape through a secret passageway (that still exists) to a nearby fortress. A total of 147 guards were killed but they took with them over 800 of the enemy. The solemn induction when the Guard dons its conquistador helmets and breastplates (which have been handed down over the generations) takes place on May 6. In the barracks where the guards live today there are still holes in the walls left from the 1527 incident.

When the Pope travels he attended by a couple of plain-cloth Swiss Guards, along with lots of other security people. Hans Roggen, a Swiss Guard who traveled with the Pope in the 1980s, told National Geographic: "The Pope can be a difficult object to protect. You can's be pushy or rude or nasty around the a pope. He wouldn't like that."

Until recently the only weapons the guards carried other than their halberds were seven-foot-long 16th-century-style pikes. After the 1981 assassination attempt on the Pope they began carrying concealed revolvers, even Uzis, under their tunics.

Swiss Guard Life

Life for the Swiss Guard in the 1980s was no piece of cake. For a take home pay of $1,000 a month (small by European standards), the guards worked 60 to 70 hours a week, stood silently for long hours while guarding, had to be willing to drop what they were doing to help the Pope, endured Marine-like military training, lived ins Spartan. barracks, and made midnight bed checks. There were also rumors of alcoholism and homosexuality brought on partly by their isolation. [Source: James Fallows, National Geographic, December 1985]

The Swiss Guard is known for their appetite. James Fallows observed one Guard snack on entire roast chicken while another ate six or seven feet of sausage. There is no vow of celibacy for the Swiss Guard and some guards have girlfriends but many don’t in part because they don't have enough free time to meet one. Those who become guards do mainly out of loyalty and devotion to the Catholic Church.

Candidates for the Swiss Guard must be Swiss, Catholic stand over 5 foot 8, be between 18 and 30 years of age, have completed their Swiss military service, and have "irreproachable character." They do a two-year tour. The leader of the Swiss Guard has traditionally been a Swiss noblemen. These days the Swiss guard is having a hard time finding recruits. For some occasions their ranks are inflated with seminaries dressed in Swiss Guard costumes.

Rambo, a cat living in the barracks of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican in the 1990s, could open doors. It first leapt up the door handle, which is long and thin and parallel to the floor. With his body completely off the ground he used his weight to pull down on the handle, unlatching the door. He then pushed the door open with his front paws and walked through. [National Geographic Geographica, January 1992]

Swiss Guard swearing in

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except Papal enclave, Catholic Answers Forum and Papal clothes, The Oreganian

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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