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I’ve read conflicting claims about who the first Pope was. I read this question in a newspaper - "Was Boniface the first true Pope?" Boniface I (418-22) was spoken of as a pope, but so were his predecessors, Zosimus (417-418) and Innocent I (401-17). Was it not Damasus (366-384) who made the theory about Peter an essential part of papal doctrine? He was the first pope to refer consistently to the church of Rome as the 'apostolic see' and to address bishops of other churches as 'sons; rather than as 'brothers'.

The answer given by Dr. Ahmes L. Pahor, Birmingham, to that newspaper question was, "While Siricius (384-399) is thought to have been the first Bishop of Rome to style himself Pope, he is not the first to have used the title. This appears to have originated in the East, in Alexandria, one of the main four seats of patriarchs at the time. Heraclas, Bishop of Alexandria (231-247), appointed 22 bishops to oversee Egypt, apart from Alexandria, his own diocese. He needed to take this action as the Egyptians turned to Christianity in great numbers and there was a need to have other bishops to help Heraclas administer the ever-growing Coptic Church. The Alexandrians saw Heraclas as 'father of the fathers' or 'papa', and thus the title 'pope' was bestowed on him by his congregation in the first half of the third century (about 150 years before Siricius)."

However, I read elsewhere that Pope Damasus took the title "Supreme Pontiff" in 380, for the first time. Yet I understand Catholics say that St. Miltiades was named Pope on 2 July 311, and Marcellinus (who died 304) was also called Pope. I’m just so confused as to when the title of Pope was bestowed, but not retrospectively.

Please note, I’m NOT asking about the title of Bishop of Rome.

Is there any recorded evidence as to when the title of Pope (papa) was bestowed upon, and publicly acknowledged by, the Bishops of Rome? I’ve searched high and low on Catholic web sites, but although all the Bishops of Rome are referred to as Pope, I want to know when this became a distinctive title of the Bishops of Rome. A complete list of all 266 Popes can be found here: The List of Popes.

  • I would like to ask for more information, as I don't speak Italian (nor, as it happens, Latin): are you saying that the word pope is an Italian (or Latin) term, derived from some older source? I am (obviously!) aware that pope is the common English name for the head of the Catholic church, but I had always supposed that it is only a term we use from habit (or tradition), and that in Italian the term is pontif. Do Italians actually use the word "Pope"? – Ed999 Feb 10 at 3:33
  • The reason why I am asking this Q is to gain clarity on when, exactly, the pontifical title (which would include English translations later on) was officially used in Catholicism, and bestowed. Applying the title retrospectively confuses the issue, and that is what I seek clarity on. I'm not concerned about Italians using the English word. Do ask a Q on this yourself, if you wish to explore that point further. – Anne Feb 11 at 7:52
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Here is the short answer to your question:

Titles: The most noteworthy of the titles are Papa, Summus Pontifex, Pontifex Maximus, Servus servorum Dei. The title pope (papa) was, as has been stated, at one time employed with far more latitude. In the East it has always been used to designate simple priests. In the Western Church, however, it seems from the beginning to have been restricted to bishops (Tertullian, On Modesty 13). It was apparently in the fourth century that it began to become a distinctive title of the Roman Pontiff. Pope Siricius (d. 398) seems so to use it (Ep. vi in P.L., XIII, 1164), and Ennodius of Pavia (d. 473) employs it still more clearly in this sense in a letter to Pope Symmachus (P.L., LXIII, 69). Yet as late as the seventh century St. Gall (d. 640) addresses Desiderius of Cahors as papa (P.L., LXXXVII, 265). Gregory VII finally prescribed that it should be confined to the successors of Peter (1073-85). Source: The Pope (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Below are quotes from the New Advent web site on the titles Bishop of Rome and Pope:

It is no longer denied by any writer of weight that St. Peter visited Rome and suffered martyrdom there (Harnack, "Chronol.", I, 244, n. 2). Some, however, of those who admit that he taught and suffered in Rome, deny that he was ever bishop of the city (e.g. Lightfoot, "Clement of Rome", II, 501; Harnack, op. cit., I, 703). It is not, however, difficult to show that the fact of his bishopric is so well attested as to be historically certain.

The first witness is St. Clement, a disciple of the Apostles, who, after Linus and Anacletus, succeeded St. Peter as the fourth in the list of popes. In his "Epistle to the Corinthians", written in 95 or 96, he bids them receive back the bishops whom a turbulent faction among them had expelled... The tone of authority which inspires the latter appears so clearly that Lightfoot did not hesitate to speak of it as "the first step towards papal domination" (Clement 1:70). Thus, at the very commencement of church history, before the last survivor of the Apostles had passed away, we find a Bishop of Rome, himself a disciple of St. Peter, intervening in the affairs of another Church and claiming to settle the matter by a decision spoken under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Such a fact admits of one explanation alone. It is that in the days when the Apostolic teaching was yet fresh in men's minds the universal Church recognized in the Bishop of Rome the office of supreme head.

The [second] century gives us the witness of St. Irenaeus — a man who stands in the closest connection with the age of the Apostles, since he was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had been appointed Bishop of Smyrna by St. John. In his work "Adversus Haereses" (III:3:2) he brings against the Gnostic sects of his day the argument that their doctrines have no support in the Apostolic tradition faithfully preserved by the Churches, which could trace the succession of their bishops back to the Twelve. He proceeds to enumerate the Roman succession from Linus to Eleutherius, the twelfth after the Apostles, who then occupied the see.

In the second century we cannot look for much evidence. With the exception of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Alexandria, all the writers whose works we possess are apologists against either Jews or pagans. In works of such a character there was no reason to refer to such a matter as Peter's Roman episcopate. Irenaeus, however, supplies us with a cogent argument. In two passages (Against Heresies I.27.1 and III.4.3) he speaks of Hyginus as ninth Bishop of Rome, thus employing an enumeration which involves the inclusion of Peter as first bishop. Irenaeus we know visited Rome in 177.

In the first quarter of the third century (about 220) Tertullian (On Modesty 21) mentions Callistus's claim that Peter's power to forgive sins had descended in a special manner to him. Had the Roman Church been merely founded by Peter and not reckoned him as its first bishop, there could have been no ground for such a contention. Tertullian, like Firmilian, had every motive to deny the claim. Moreover, he had himself resided at Rome, and would have been well aware if the idea of a Roman episcopate of Peter had been, as is contended by its opponents, a novelty dating from the first years of the third century, supplanting the older tradition according to which Peter and Paul were co-founders, and Linus first bishop.

Source: The Pope (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Conclusion: It appears that the official use of the title of Pope (as given to Bishops of Rome) and confined to the successors of Peter, did not come into effect till the reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073-85).

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The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003 edition) states:

As a name, it is derived from the Latin papa, in turn derived from the Greek παπᾶς (παππᾶς), which in classical Greek was a child’s word for father. Papa and παπᾶς appear in Christian literature from the beginning of the 3d century as a title used of bishops, suggesting their spiritual paternity. From the 3d to the 5th century the name was applied to all bishops, but in the 6th century it began to be reserved to the bishops of Rome. The first writer to do this with any consistency was Magnus Felix Ennodius (d. 521). The practice of restricting the title to the Roman bishops has been universal in the Western Church since the 8th century.

Regarding the title pontifex maximus, the encyclopedia states:

This term, borrowed from the vocabulary of pagan religion at Rome, made its way early into Christian discourse. Lexicographers derive it, although with clear misgivings, from the Latin words pons (bridge) and facere (to make, build). If this derivation is accepted, it is easy to see how readily it applies to those who build a bridge to make a way for men to God. Nevertheless, in Roman religion it designated members of the council of priests forming the Pontifical College, which ranked as the highest priestly organization at Rome and was presided over by the pontifex maximus. It is not clear when the term first made its appearance as a designation for Christian religious leaders, or whether Tertullian’s ironic use of the designation pontifex maximus (in his De pudicitia, c. A.D. 220) for a Catholic bishop represents current terminology or not. In the Vulgate pontifex is used in Hebrews as a translation for the Greek ἀρχιερεύς (chief priest, high priest).

I hope this helps with the question.

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