What does the Pope do?

Pope Francis has served as head of the church for almost 7 years now, but what exactly does the Pope’s job entail?

Stature of Saint Paul, Vatican City

Pope derives from the Greek word pappas meaning ‘father’ and put simply is the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, and head of state representing the Holy See. In early Christianity the title of Pope was applied to all bishops, bishops being elected members of the clergy who are entrusted with a position of authority.

According to the bible the first Pope who acted as head of the Church was Saint Peter, who was entrusted by Jesus with the ‘keys to heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). Considered one of the most prominent of the twelve apostles, after Jesus appeared to Peter first following his crucifixion, Peter’s leadership is described as the rock on which the church was built. It is thus believed that the papacy spans from the appointment of Saint Peter, with the next Pope being a successor of Peter, head of the bishops as Saint Peter was head of the apostles.

As the capital of the Roman Empire, Rome naturally became the growing centre of the Catholic Church. Especially when some Christians believe it to be the place where Saint Peter was martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero, although there is no hard evidence to support this. The rise to Christianity occurred during the Roman Empire (27 BC – 286 AD), although its development was a long time in the making, and even after the conversion of many neighbouring nations the rulers of Rome persecuted and killed many practicing Christians. That’s why the first few successors of Saint Peter are hard to trace and remain obscure, most likely in hiding or put to death for their beliefs.

It wasn’t until the rise of Emperor Constantine that the church had their first official Pope in the figure of Pope Damasus I, who was appointed the bishop of Rome from October 366 to his death in 384 AD. From then the papacy has continued in some form or another, facing different threats over time. In the early years the Pope’s main concern was in protecting the church against the threat of schisms. During the Renaissance it was trying to balance the fragile position of power with the government. Much of the papacy’s development was aided by the Papal Primacy, an ecclesiastical doctrine asserted by Pope Gregory I during his position as Pope from 590 – 604 AD. The doctrine is a document outlining the respect and authority due to the Pope from other bishops and their area of jurisdiction.

In modern times, the position of the Pope is still one of great prestige and authority, with each Pope ruling over the ecclesiastical state of the Vatican City, named the home of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis assumed this significant position of responsibility on the 13th March 2013, succeeding Pope Benedict XVI. He has been praised for his more informal approach and common touch demonstrated by his simple white dress and iron pectoral cross that he wore as archbishop of Buenos Aires. This stands in contrast to his predecessors who all wore the traditional red trimmed mozzetta and gold cross upon their succession. This indicated his changing attitudes to the formalities of the Vatican.

Pope Francis waving to the crowds in the Vatican City

His duties as the 266th successor to the throne of Saint Peter bring new as well as traditional challenges to his role as leader of 1.2 billion Catholics scattered worldwide. With the attitudes of the modern day constantly developing and changing, Pope Francis has remained true to what he knows and believes, a characteristic which has served him favourably by the public and the media. Upon his succession for example, he was offered the traditional archbishop’s palace as his place to reside like those before him. Pope Francis however, considered these too large for him and refused, preferring more simple accommodation.

Although appointments of the Pope are international, the Pope’s Vatican appointments occur weekly. These include a weekly blessing for tourists and pilgrims every Sunday from the window of his private study overlooking Saint Peter’s square, and a weekly general audience for some 5,000 pilgrims. Annual events are also led by the Pope, including Christmas Mass, the New Year’s Parade and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) held on Good Friday. On all occasions the Pope addresses thousands of people from across the globe. Pope Francis has made a personal effort to recognise people’s different nationalities, being able to speak Spanish, Latin, Italian, German, French, Portuguese and English. Languages which he uses to address the different crowds which gather at many of his services each year.

Inside the Basilica. Gold church interior. Vatican City, Italy.

The role of the Pope is a busy one, with one of the duties being to meet at least once every year with his more than 5,000 bishops from around the world (that’s 1,000 a year!). This means foreign travel has become an important task among the Pope’s duties and is something heavily supported by Pope Francis, who has often spoken out about the importance of coming together and looking past the individual ‘you’ to an ‘us’. This inclusive attitude is why the Pope also receives many visitors, meeting with many important leaders and celebrities from all over the world. He has met with both former President Obama, and current President of the United States Donald Trump, discussing issues such as climate change, the refugee crisis and terrorism. Celebrities include the likes of Angelina Jolie, who has been praised for her humanitarian work, and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio.

Being both the head of the state and the Church, the Pope’s duties are a mix of religious, political and moral. It is no wonder, Pope Benedict XVI resigned at the age of 85, feeling that due to his age he lacked the necessary strength in mind and body needed to fulfil his duties.

Related article: Who lives in the Vatican Palace?

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