What Is the Purpose of the Pope?
Question: Why do Catholics have a pope?
Answer: To answer the question of why Catholics have a pope, we have to pull the lens back and think about the very nature of the Church herself. According to the Nicene Creed (which is the statement of beliefs that we recite each Sunday at Mass), we profess that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” These adjectives are called the marks of the Church, and they help us see that the Church is bigger than just our individual parish communities or even the Christians living in a particular region or country.
To help ensure that the community of disciples would remain united in a communion of love, Jesus entrusted the Apostles with special authority to teach, heal, and forgive sins in his name. And from among this group, Jesus chose Simon Peter to play a special role, designating him as the “rock” on which the Church was to be built (see Matthew 16:18-19; John 21:15-17). Peter “the Rock” became the visible sign of union within and among the Apostles. In time, as Peter and the other Apostles passed away, other men were chosen to take their place. The successors of St. Peter — who we honor as the first Bishop of Rome — and the successors of the other Apostles (the bishops) continued the work entrusted by Jesus to that first generation of Church leaders.
According to long-standing tradition, the successor of Peter was Linus, who was followed by Cletus, who was followed by Clement I, etc. This line of succession continues to Pope Francis in our own time.
Over the centuries, these Bishops of Rome — who came to be known as the “pope” (from papa, which means “father” in Latin) — still continue to act as the “rock” of the Church and as the visible sign of unity for all the Catholic Christians. The pope, more than any other bishop, stands as the Church’s primary teacher and as pastor of the Church throughout the world, helping to ensure that the Church remains what Jesus intended her to be: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
To learn more, see the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (no. 857-862 and 880-882).