I was in my dorm preparing to head off to one of my classes when I heard my friend excitedly yelling “the smoke is white! The smoke is white!” My friends were streaming live news straight from Rome. The whole hall was in a celebratory uproar as the smoke pouring out from atop the Sistine Chapel told us the joyous news: We have a pope.
All of my friends were celebrating, but I didn’t share their enthusiasm. Sure, it was a memorable occasion, but at that time I didn’t understand why as Catholics we needed a pope. After all, where is the pope in the Bible?
It took the next few years before I would begin to understand my friends’ excitement. I would eventually see the biblical basis for the papacy, while gaining a better understanding of why we need a pope. But before we talk in any great detail on this subject, we first need to understand what a pope is.
Passed Down: A Successive Structure
Every diocese has a bishop as its leader. And every bishop receives his authority from his predecessor, and that authority was received from the bishop before him. The chain of authority has been passed down through generations of bishops, originating with our first bishops, the apostles. St. Peter foretold this succession of the apostles when they sought to replace Judas: “Let another take his position of overseer” (Acts 1:20, Ps 109).
The pope is a bishop too. But he is different the other bishops in that his diocese is in Rome (hence you might hear him referred to as the Bishop of Rome, or the Roman Pontiff). But why does this distinguish him from the other bishops?
To understand the significance of the Bishop of Rome, we must understand more about our first Bishop of Rome. That is, St. Peter. The Rock.
Laying a Papal Foundation
The gospels tell of Jesus choosing His apostles with whom He would dwell for three years. He chose 12, and among them was Simon, a lowly fisherman. All twelve apostles were given special authority by Jesus, but even a cursory read through the Gospels reveals that Simon held a special place among the rest.
One event of special note, however, took place at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked his apostles “who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). Simon spoke up with the correct answer. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Then Jesus said something radical.
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matt 16:17-18, emphasis added).
There is a wordplay here that doesn’t make it through in English. In changing his name to Peter (Greek for rock), Jesus essentially said: “you are rock (Gr: petros), and on this rock (Gr: petra) I will build my Church.” From a biblical perspective, a name was more than just an address. Names revealed something about who the person was. God changed Abram’s original name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), saying “your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5). Thus came the nation of Israel.
So when God gives someone a new name, it’s usually the precursor to a divine mic drop.
By changing Simon’s name to Peter, Jesus did more than make a “nickname” for His companion. He told Peter who he was: the rock on which Jesus would build His Church.
There’s so much more to be said about this profound passage. And we will visit it again in the future. But for now we’ll have to stop here. We must press on.
What is a Pope?
The title, pope, stems from the Latin, papa, meaning father (see also Is it Biblical to Call Priests Father?). And as the Papa of the Church, he has his Job cut out for him. Recall the risen Christ’s words to Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Pope as the “Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor,” who is
the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered (CCC 882).
The Pope is the leader of the Catholic Church, holding an office that was ordained by Jesus Himself, and has been passed down for 2000 years. It started with St. Peter, then to St. Linus, then to St. Anacletus, and so on.
You might see why my friends were so excited when we received our new Pope. We received a new leader, a new papa.
The Leader among the Bishops
Peter was among the other 11 apostles, but he was also head of the apostles. Listen to what Jesus told Peter before His Crucifixion: “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you [the apostles] like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32, emphasis added). The Greek word for you here is in the singular form, meaning Jesus prayed specifically for Peter.
Jesus knew what He was doing when He established a leader among His apostles. Our own earthly experience confirms that every organization needs a leader. Sure, there might be different offices and roles that support and interact with the leader. But a functional organization demands someone to be in charge – to be the final say in matters.
That’s exactly what Peter was. The man in charge.
Just look at the Council of Jerusalem. The Christians gathered in Jerusalem to discuss whether gentiles must first convert to Judaism before converting to Christianity. This might not sound like a big deal, but believe me – it was (For a greater look into the issue, see also Are we Saved by Faith or Works Part 2 of 3). Amid the council, Peter stood up and settled the matter (Acts 15:7-11).
As a human institution, the papacy wouldn’t have lasted long. But Christ knew that His Church needed a leader in His absence. And in His absence He would ensure that His people were taken care of. “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
And feed us he did. He was the first to preach the Gospel and bring converts into the infant Church (Acts 2). He was the first to settle a major doctrinal dilemma (Acts 15). And he even followed Christ faithfully to his own crucifixion (John 21:19).
No matter what continent you call home, what race you are a part of, or what age you live in, Catholics are united under the Bishop of Rome as the head of the Church.
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