What is a Pope and what does he do?

The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church - the biggest Christian denomination, with a billion members worldwide.

icon-home » Catholic Faith » Church and Faith FAQs » What is a Pope and what does he do?

We live in a democratic society. Yet believing in democracy does not mean that we do not have leadership. In fact, there is not a single country in the world which does not have a single ruler as head of the state; even if his or her powers are limited in one way or another. As human beings, we need to see in important communities a leader who acts with the authority of that particular state or institution.

The Catholic Church is the biggest Christian denomination, with a billion members worldwide. Our leader is called affectionately “the Pope”, which means “Father”. We call the Pope “Father”, just as Catholics call their priest “Father”, because the Pope represents God as our Father, who loves us, who made us, and who sent his Son to die on the cross for us. The Pope represents God our Father in a special way, because like a good parent he guards the truth of the revelation which Jesus Christ handed on to his apostles (followers), the chief of whom was Simon whom Jesus called in his own language Cephas, meaning “Rock”. We believe that the present Pope is the successor of Peter, the Fisherman.

During his lifetime, Jesus made Peter the leader of his church on earth, to take over when Jesus died, rose again from the dead, and went to be with his Father in heaven. He said to Peter, after Simon had named Jesus as “the Son of the Living God”; “Simon, Son of John, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I say that you are Peter (the Rock) and on this Rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell will not triumph against it. Whatever you shall bind on earth you shall bind in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. [Matthew 16:17-19] Jesus was giving Peter an immense authority; to act for Christ in guarding the truth, indeed to excommunicate (deprive of the right of Church membership) those who did not keep that truth, or who behaved in such a way which was contrary to the ethics of God’s people.

To cut a long story short, Peter did just that. He eventually went to Rome, and was crucified in the Roman games. Tradition has it that he asked to be crucified upside down, because he said he did not deserve to be crucified the same way up as his Lord! You can see his tomb today, underneath the Basilica of Saint Peter.

There have been more than two hundred Popes since then, as successors of Peter. They are like Peter, human, with no doubt human failings. But we believe as Catholics that they share his authority. The Holy Spirit we believe gives the Pope, together with all the Catholic bishops of the world, the special gift to be able to discern the true faith, and to teach that faith to the church and to the world.

Like a democratic country, as we have said, we have therefore a single leader. But unlike a democracy, we believe that the Pope has the authority to teach with or without the consent of individual members of the Church. After all, Jesus did not ask for a vote when he decided to give himself up to die on the cross. His disciples would have voted against it! We do not believe that we have the power to change the teaching in the Bible such as the Ten Commandments, or the commandment to love. That is part of what we call the “magisterium”, that is the teaching authority of the Church, handed on to us in the Bible and in the living Tradition of the Church, concerning which the Pope is as our “Father” on earth the guardian.

When our present Pope, Benedict XVI, comes to England in the autumn, he is given the great privilege of speaking in the Great Hall of Westminster, in the same building as the Houses of Parliament. In 1535, the then Chancellor of England (now called the Prime Minister) was Sir Thomas More. He was put on trial because he refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England. More said that Jesus himself had given that commission to the apostle Peter, as we said above. The King wanted the Pope to annul his marriage with Queen Katherine of Aragon, but the Pope refused. Thomas More was condemned to death, in the same Great Hall of Westminster, and beheaded as a traitor. The Catholic Church has named him a saint and martyr.

To Pray

God our Father, shepherd and guide, look with love on Benedict, your servant, the pastor of your Church. May his word and example inspire and guide the Church, and may he, and all those entrusted to his care, come to the joy of everlasting life. We ask this through Christ our Lord.


To Read

The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. 400 “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head.” 401 This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.’
Catechism of the Catholic Church 881. Click here to visit the Vatican VA website.

Redford, John: Bad, Mad, or God? Proving the Divinity of Christ from St.Johns Gospel. London, Saint Pauls, 2004. Catholic Basics, pp.35-41.

This article was written in 2010 by a member of the catechetical team at the Maryvale Institute.