The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest existing institution in the world. But before the traditions and regalia, before Christianity became the state religion of Rome, before Catholicism with a capital “C,” there was a pope.
John Paul II was the 264th pope, a position unique among public and historical figures. In 1870, during the first Vatican Council under Pope Pius IX, the Catholic Church established a doctrine of papal infallibility and defined the pope as the “supreme judge of the faithful.”
Although Catholics embody a wide range of theological interpretations, they are united in a basic unity to the pope, who acts as the church’s ruling body.
“There is no one figure in Protestantism ... that can speak for all as the pope does for a billion Catholics,” said MU professor emerita in religious studies Jill Raitt, founder of the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public. “He’s as responsible as any CEO for the actions of those he’s appointed, and in the end he signs off on everything.”
The office of the pope is traced to a pact between Jesus Christ and the apostle Peter, recorded in Matthew 16:18-19. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.”
Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship of believers and flourished in Italy when Peter and other Christians preached there. Peter lived in Rome late in his life and was eventually martyred. He is buried in a tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Catholics call Peter the first Bishop of Rome, which has been a title for the pope ever since.
In A.D. 312, Constantine, emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity and recognized it as an official religion of Rome in 313. Christianity became the official, protected religion of Rome in 381, under the reign of Theodosius.
The word catholic is derived from the Greek word for “universal.” The term “Catholic Church” was first used around A.D. 110 by St. Ignatius. The church has been vastly influential in world culture, including standardizing the first texts of many languages, Raitt said. Catholic monasteries were centers of poetry, music and literature, and the first hospitals and hospices were started as acts of Catholic charity. The world’s first universities were founded by the church; the traditional black gowns worn at graduation are reminiscent of clerical robes.
Pope is an informal title, derived from the Greek word “pappas,” which means “father.” The pontiff’s formal title is more cumbersome: “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.”
Over the course of two millennia, however, disagreements and unpopular beliefs caused schisms, in which factions within the Catholic Church broke away to start their own churches. The Great Schism of 1054, for example, caused a cataclysmic split between the Roman and Byzantine churches, dividing Christianity into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, was the result of a rebellion against papal authority by the German theologian and monk Martin Luther, who disagreed with the selling of indulgences, in which sins are forgiven in exchange for a fee paid to the Church. Though Catholicism and Protestantism have often clashed ideologically and physically, the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion stresses that both “are united in the belief that Jesus Christ, as both person and event, provides the fullest disclosure of God.”
The only schism of the 20th century occurred in July 1988, under Pope John Paul . Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre led a group of Catholics who opposed the reforms reached during Vatican II, in the mid-1960s, including changes to the liturgy in which masses were no longer required to be performed in Latin.
John Paul was the only pope that young Catholics, like Liz Detwiler, a senior communications major at MU and a devout Catholic, have ever known. Detwiler’s love for Pope John Paul II has grown as she’s learned more about his life. She believes that having a human leader of their faith holds Catholics to higher standard of moral accountability.
“We need people to help us grow towards God,” she says. “We need someone to say, ‘This is wrong, we’re not doing this, this is not what God wants.’
“The minute you step outside yourself and listen to what he’s saying, you can’t help but be blown away by his depth and spirituality and devotion to us.”