Historical story

How the Pope Became the Boss

Benedict XVI, Pope and Bishop of Rome, will resign this week. For centuries, whoever occupies the Holy See in the Vatican has been the undisputed leader of the Roman Catholic Church. But the church has many bishops. Why did the one of Rome become so powerful? Long political struggles and forged documents have given the Pope a true monopoly in matters of faith…

When the Roman Catholic Church changes leaders, it also makes an impression in 2013, both within and outside the Catholic faith. All kinds of age-old rituals and symbolism should make it clear to the viewer that this is about something important. Any Catholic can confirm this. In that religion the Pope (Latin:'papa', little father) is the direct 'intermediary' of God. Literally the Pontifex :'bridge builder' between heaven and earth.

To this day, the Pope derives the authority that this function entails from, among other things, the 'Liber Pontificalis' , the Book of Popes. It is a series of biographies of the earliest popes up to the ninth century, beginning with the very first pope, the apostle Peter. This important book probably originated in the sixth century AD. It says that Peter was chosen by Jesus himself as the first leader of the Christian church. All his successors – the current Pope Benedict XVI being the last in that list – are direct successors.

Peter:the Rock

According to the Bible, Jesus called his apostle Simon “the rock (“Cephas” in Aramaic, “Petros” in Greek) upon which he would build his church” and was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The two keys are still the symbol of the Pope. In the Gospel of John, Jesus even names him as his successor. According to Christian tradition – although it is not in the Bible – Peter was martyred in Rome by being crucified upside down out of respect for Jesus.

However, whether this Peter ever actually went to Rome and took charge of the early Christian community there is rather unclear. In any case, it is well known that the earliest Christian communities were not at all familiar with a central leader or the concept of pope. They were loosely organized because the early Christians believed that Jesus would soon return to earth. It was only when, around the beginning of the second century, that it became apparent that this return was still a long way off, the need arose for more hierarchy and organization.

Local leaders emerged in the form of bishops (Latin:Episcopus, supervisor). As communities grew and Christian salvation spread through the increasingly unstable Roman Empire, bishops gained more and more power and influence. But the bishop of Rome did not yet have a special position. He was not even present at the first great church meeting, organized in the year 325 by Emperor Constantine the Great.

By the end of the fourth century, that changed. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Many of his later successors recognized that the Roman Empire depended on Christian support for its political stability. Several Roman emperors made money available to build churches and palaces for the bishop in the capital Rome.

Defender of the city

Then in 395 A.D. ch. When the Roman Empire was definitively divided into an eastern and a western part and the power of the western Roman emperor declined rapidly thereafter, it was increasingly the bishop of Rome who took the lead when the city had to be defended against barbarian peoples. Pope Leo I, for example, defended the city against an attack by the Huns in 452.

Leo I, who had tasted the secular power in his struggle against these strange tribes, once again explained why the bishop of Rome was the most important:In many of his letters and writings he quotes the Gospel texts about Peter. After all, Peter was designated by Jesus as successor and died in Rome.

He who dared to doubt that the power lay with the Pope in Rome, put his own soul in the greatest danger. “Ecclesia Romana semper habuit primatum” (The Church of Rome always has primacy ) was his powerful motto. To underline his commitment to Peter, he was the first pope to have himself interred in St. Peter's Basilica, which had previously been built by order of Constantine on the site of the (alleged) tomb of Peter. A tradition that continues to this day.

Leo I's successors then continued to strengthen the power of the bishop of Rome. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) first called himself pontifex. An allusion to the great Roman emperors of yore calling themselves Pontifex Maximus (greatest bridge builder), to underline that they too had a direct relationship with the Roman gods.

In 568, Gregory I, nicknamed the Great, defended what was left of the Roman Empire—not much more than the northern part of the Italic peninsula—against the Lombards. He laid the foundations of the Papal State, areas where the Pope was recognized as a sovereign temporal ruler. Today only the Vatican City remains. Pope Gregory the Great is said to be the creator of the famous Gregorian chant that was whispered to him by a dove.

Crafted document

Meanwhile, at church meetings (councils ) has increasingly become a point of contention over who had the last word on religious issues. After all, issues of faith always had a strong political side in ancient times. Was the secular monarch (kings and emperors) or the bishop in charge? It was a battle that would continue well into the Middle Ages.

In the eighth century, the Papal Curia pieced together a document to prove that right belonged to the Bishop of Rome. With that document, known as the Constantine Donation , Emperor Constantine is said to have transferred that decision-making power to the then Pope Sylvester I in the third century, because he would have cured him of leprosy. It was only in the fifteenth century that the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla showed that it was a forgery after comparing with other sources.

Although the bishops of Rome increasingly claimed a primary position, a large church meeting in 691 still stated that five bishops of important cities, the patriarchs, had a "position of honor" within the Christian world. In addition to Rome, this was the bishop of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Officially they were all equal.

Power vacuum

But the advancing Islam in the east soon diminished the power and prestige of the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor held a lot of power in his hands. But the bishop of Rome found himself in a power vacuum after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and was able to really turn his privileged position into power.

Early medieval popes did that a lot. In the eighth century, Rome became a real papal city full of new churches, symbolism and public rituals. Because the Pope now really had a lot of power, princes like Charlemagne were happy to participate in this.

The solid foundation of the pope's power had been laid in the eighth century. But the struggle for the papacy continued in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The so-called Investiture Controversy, a years-long political controversy between the Pope and the Emperor over who had the right to appoint bishops, is the best known example.

The fact that the Pope is still an authority for many people will also become apparent on February 28. Then Benedict XVI, the 256 e Pope of the Catholic Church to resign. The wait is then for white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, which is the sign that the cardinals agree on who will be their new leader. God has appointed a new successor for the apostle Peter.

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