Early this week, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected as the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Here are nine things you should know about the papacy.

1. The most well-known title for the head of the Roman Catholic Church—"pope" (from the Latin papa, a child's word for father)—does not appear in the official list of titles given in the Annuario Pontificio (Italian for "Pontifical Yearbook"). The Pope's official list of titles are Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God.

2. Popes have come from every continent except for Australia, Antarctica, and North America. Catholics believe that at least one person who became pope (St. Peter) was ethnically Jewish, though others (e.g., Evaritus, Gregory VI) may have been too. Because race was not a category considered relevant, it is unknown whether the popes from Africa—Victor I (c. 189-201), Miltiades (311-14), and Gelasius (492-496)—were black.

3. Prior to 1059, the pope was elected in various ways, though usually by the clergy of the diocese. (In 236, a man named Fabian—who was not even a candidate—was chosen as pope after a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, landed on his shoulder.) In 1179 the College of Cardinals was given the exclusive right to choose a new pope, and a two-thirds majority was set as the threshold for a winning vote (later changed to two-thirds plus one). In 1970, Pope Paul VI ruled that cardinals who were more than 80 years old when a pope died could not take part in the voting process for his successor.

4. Technically, any baptized male can be elected pope. However, the last pope who was not a priest when elected was Leo X (1513-1521). He was only a cardinal-deacon, a position that at the time did not require priestly ordination, and had to be ordained before taking office. Current Catholic Church law require that popes be bishops. The last cardinal elected pope who was not a bishop was Bartolomeo Cappellari, a monk who became Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. He was made a bishop four days after his election and then became pope.

5. Upon being elected, the pope takes a new name. The custom began in 533 with the election of Mercurius, who had been named after the Roman god Mercury. He decided it inappropriate for a pope to be named after pagan deities and so took the name John II. Adopting a new name became customary in the 10th century, and every pope since the 16th century has taken a new regnal name. There is no set system for choosing a name, though it is usually symbolic and based on a saint or previous pope. The most commonly taken name has been John (used 23 times), followed by Gregory and Benedict (both taken 16 times). Only two popes have taken two names (John Paul I and John Paul II) and no pope has yet taken Peter II.

6. Papal infallibility does not mean the pope can never make a mistake. Rather it is a Catholic dogma which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the pope is preserved from the possibility of error "when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church." Technically, a pope can change Catholic customs (e.g., abstinence from meat on Fridays) but not doctrine.

7. Although papal infallibility had been defended during the medieval era, it wasn't formally adopted as Catholic dogma until the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870. (The pope isn't the only one considered infallible. The Catholic Church believes that their bishops, when united with the pope in an ecumenical council, are also infallible when issuing decrees on matters of faith and morals.)

8. Papal protocol is that the the pope does not eat in public.

9. The informal name for the pope's car is "Popemobile" (Italian: Papamobile). The precursor to the popemobile was the gestatorial chair sedia gestatoria which was a chair carried on the shoulders of a number of papal attendants. This mode of transport fell out of use following the incumbency of Pope Paul VI in 1978. Currently, there are at least 20 Popemobiles housed around the world, with six of them at the Vatican garage. The model developed by Mercedes-Benz (price tag: about $530,000) is armor-plated, bullet-proof, and capable of speeds up to 160 mph (though when the pope's on board it usually travels at 6 mph). The vehicle registration plate of the popemobile reads "SCV 1"—short for "Status Civitatis Vaticanae", the Latin name for Vatican City.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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