HISTORY OF THE PAPACY
Bishops of Rome: from the 1st century AD
The pope is the bishop of Rome. The name derives from a Greek word pappas, meaning father, and Rome’s bishop is seen as the father figure of the early church because of the link with St Peter. Jesus is believed to have appointed Peter as the rock on which the church will be built; and Peter is believed to have been martyred in Rome. As the capital of the empire, Rome is also a natural centre for the growing church.
Unlike any other Christian see, Rome can put at least a name to every bishop in an unbroken line back to the 1st century of the Christian era and to St Peter himself as the first pope. The papacy, though not recognized as such until later centuries, has impressive credentials.
Many popes in the first three centuries of the Christian era are obscure figures. Several suffer martyrdom along with members of their flock in periods of persecution. Most of them are much involved in theological argument with other bishops, as the young church flexes its doctrinal muscles.
The change to a very different role comes during the brief pontificate of Miltiades (311-314). In 313 he holds a council openly in Rome, at the behest of the emperor, in the Lateran palace. A lasting link, between the papacy and temporal power, has begun. And there are immediate signs of the change.
The first churches: AD 312-337
Concrete evidence of the new status of Christianity is seen in the emergence of the first church buildings. The change is most visible in Rome, the strongest Christian community. Until now, in spite of the size of the congregation of Christians in Rome, worship has been conducted discreetly in private houses. Suddenly churches become public buildings, city landmarks as prominent as the temples of the pagan cult.
Some of the churches evolve from the private houses already in use for worship; one such example is SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. Others in the capital city are new and more striking foundations.
Constantine establishes three important churches in Rome. One, intended to be the city’s cathedral, is sited immediately beside his own Lateran palace – already presented to the Christians as a residence for the pope. This church is St John Lateran.
The other two churches of Constantine in Rome are built in honour of the city’s two martyrs, Peter and Paul, on the supposed sites of their graves. One is outside the old city and is called S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls). The other, in the Vatican, is St Peter’s. Both have since been rebuilt.
Leo the Great: AD 440-461
The first pope to indicate the real potential of the papacy is Leo I, who has an unusual span of twenty-one years in office. He uses his time well, not only in the papal duty of restraining heretics but also in rehearsing other roles to be played by Rome.
These include defining Catholic orthodoxy (his epistle called Tome is widely accepted by his contemporaries in this context), and the assertion of the pope’s authority over other bishops by the power of the keys, granted by Jesus to Peter and supposedly passed on to his successors: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. What you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.’
With the collapse of imperial authority in the western empire, as Visigoths, Vandals and Huns move around almost at will, the papacy finds itself well placed to take a lead in temporal affairs. Ambrose in Milan has already demonstrated how a bishop can exert spiritual authority over an emperor. Leo confronts two dangerous men on a more purely diplomatic basis.
During Leo’s pontificate Rome is threatened by Attila the Hun (in 452) and Gaiseric the Vandal (455). He negotiates with both, and is traditionally credited with persuading Attila to turn back short of Rome and with convincing Gaiseric that the city should not be utterly destroyed. Whatever the exact truth of his achievement, his actions predict a broader role for the papacy.
Gregory the Great: AD 590-604
Gregory I, in the late 6th century, reveals in a similar way the future direction of Rome and of the papacy. It can be seen in two significant events. In 592, two years after his election as pope, the Lombards are at the gates of Rome; Gregory accepts papal responsibility for the city, negotiates with the barbarians and persuades them to withdraw (admittedly at the price of an annual tribute). Four years later, in 596, he despatches a mission of forty men to England. Like Gregory himself, until his election as pope, these missionaries are monks.
A temporal ruler of Rome, using monastic establishments to spread spiritual rule throughout Europe – the pattern for the medieval papacy is in place.