The Pope and the Papacy: Questions and Answers

In the aftermath of Pope John Paul II's death, Beliefnet responds to readers' questions about the leader of the Catholic Church.

BY: Charlotte Allen


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Where is the pope buried and why there?

Many of Pope John Paul's fellow Poles would like for him to buried in his native Poland, but he died as the Bishop of Rome. It is traditional for popes to be buried in the crypt underneath the Basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, where the body of St. Peter, the first pope, is traditionally believed to have been buried.

How long have there been popes?

The pope is the bishop, or leader of the Catholic Christian community, of the city of Rome, in Italy. Catholics believe that the first bishop of Rome was Peter, Jesus' disciple, who came from the Holy Land to Rome after Jesus' death to preach the Gospel there and who was killed by the Roman authorities for his belief in Jesus. So there have been bishops of Rome since the time of Peter, the very beginning of the Christian church. They did not use the name "pope," however, until about 597 A.D. The name "pope" comes from "papa," the same pet name, like "daddy," that we use today to address our fathers. That's because the bishop was regarded as the loving father of all his people.

How many popes have there been?

Pope John Paul II was the 264th pope, counting from St. Peter.

What is a cardinal?

Cardinals are very high church officials who are named by the pope as a high honor. They are usually bishops of important cities, although they don't have to be bishops. There are now 163 cardinals, and when they meet, it is in a body called the College of Cardinals. In contrast to bishops and priests, who wear black robes, cardinals wear robes of bright red, including a broad-brimmed red hat. That's why the bright red bird is called the cardinal. The red symbolizes their willingness to become martyrs for Christ. One of the most important functions of the College of Cardinals is to choose the next pope when a pope dies, and that is why the cardinals will soon be meeting in Rome. Only cardinals under the age of 80 (there are 120 of those) may vote to elect the pope.

Why does everyone say the next pope can't be from the United States?

There are three possible reasons. First, Catholics form only a minority of the inhabitants of the United States, and popes are typically chosen from strongly Catholic countries. Second, the United States is such a strong political power in the world. Many cardinals would be reluctant to have both political and church power coming from one country. Third, none of the U.S. bishops seems as distinguished spiritually and intellectually as some of the European, Latin American, and African bishops who are being talked about as the likely next pope.

What is written on the pope's headdress?

The pope's miter--the technical name for his headdress, which is worn by all bishops, bears the Latin inscription "Vicarius Filii Dei"--"Vicar of the Son of God." Catholics believe that the pope is Christ's vicar, his living representative on earth.

I am a new Catholic, and I would like to know if there is a special Mass for all Catholics in their home parishes on the day of the pope's funeral, and if so whether attendance is required?

Many Catholic parishes are holding special Masses for the pope, and you should check with your own parish for specifics. Catholics are not required to attend these Masses, although many choose to do so.

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