A Series of Essays “On the Business of Religion” by the Rev. Know-it-all
Essay Four: Fun Facts about the Papacy
Perhaps you heard me say that the bishop of Rome is the Pope, but the Pope is not the Bishop of Rome. Let me explain. The Bishop of Rome is the heir of both St. Peter and St. Paul. Both were martyred in Rome and their relics rest there. This doesn’t matter that much to us, but it did to the first Christians. I have already mentioned that St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, around 170 AD:
“For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy.”(Adversus Haereses III, 3.)
The doctrinal preeminence of the Church of Rome rested on its apostolic foundation and the churches of the world could look to the Roman Church and its bishop as to a lighthouse guiding a ship to safe harbor. The bishop of Rome was to fulfill the mandate that the Lord had given to St. Peter to “strengthen the brethren.” (Luke 22:32) This was his assignment because HE WAS THE BISHOP OF ROME, THE HEIR OF ST. PETER. No one was chosen to be pope and, oh by the way, you’re the bishop of Rome too. Nope.
Job one was bishop of Rome. The idea that the pope was elected to be the leader of a vast international organization developed slowly. The Roman emperors became Christians starting with the emperor Constantine in 312 AD following his vision on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Nova Roma, later called Constantinople and now, of course, Istanbul. The expectation was that if the city of Rome moved east, so would the bishop of Rome move east. Not so. The bishop of Rome stayed put in the old crumbling capital with his precious relics and his political independence.
Constantinople grew and Rome shrank to a small town 0f 10 or 20 thousand people. The emperors knew that no matter how small old Rome became, it was still important. The clergy and people of Rome elected their new bishops, but the emperor in faraway Constantinople was not going to let them install anyone he didn’t approve of. This system endured until the papal election of 1903 when the election of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla was vetoed by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.
Yes, you read correctly. 1903!! For 1600 years the election of the pope was interfered with by the political powers of the world. The pope approved the emperor and the emperor approved the pope.
One wonders if this is what Our Lord intended when he said “thou art Peter…” Over the course of 16 centuries of political involvement, the papacy became a whole lot more than the bishop of Rome and the ultimate spiritual authority for the universal church. Instead the pope must endure the endless dreary procession of diplomats having their pictures taken, the embarrassing circus acts performing at papal audiences and papal visits to obscure countries with more photo ops and enthused locals waving papal flags.
Fun fact! For the first eight centuries of the Church’s life, if you were made a bishop of a
particular place, you could never change your diocese. You were considered married to the diocese, hence you wore a ring. To change diocese was considered adultery.