Bizarre Rules The Pope Has To Follow

Say the word "pope" and if you're talking to English majors they might pop up with "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; / Man never is, but always To be, blest," which was written by Alexander Pope, and if you're also talking to a 10-year-old-boy he'll probably start laughing because somebody said "breast." If the discussion regards the Eastern Orthodox Church (which is not part of the Catholic Church), you'd be talking about the Patriarch of Alexandria. The topic might shift to the head of the Catholic Church, which itself, according to Catholic News Agency, consists of seven different rites. The one most often associated with Catholic is the Latin Rite, but there are also Chaldean, Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, and Maronite. All of them Catholic, and all of them recognizing the authority of the pope.

As of this writing (January 2023), the head of the Catholic Church (and its rites) is Francis, elected on March 13, 2013, per America Magazine. Born December 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergolio is the first pope elected from the Americas. He set a simple style from the beginning — right down to what he eats, insisting that he would not be Francis I (though he is indeed the first pope to take the name Francis); just Pope Francis. Alert readers would remember that his predecessor was the 16th Pope Benedict, and the one before that was the second John Paul.

First of all, he's a pastor

For years, the pope tended to be elected from the ranks of the Italians. Biography tells us that John Paul II, whom the Catholic Church recognized as a saint in 2014, hailed from Krakow, Poland. He was elected in 1978 and was the first non-Italian in more than 400 years. Pope Benedict came from Germany. There's no rule, bizarre or otherwise, saying the pope has to be Italian — but it helps if he speaks Italian, and traditionally, the more languages a papal candidate can speak, the better suited they are for the job. Per, Pope Francis is fluent in four languages — Spanish, Italian, German and Latin, while his predecessors spoke even more. 

Whoever is elected, however, has a number of different titles and job descriptions. Besides leadership of all of those sections of the Catholic Church, he's also the bishop of Rome itself, which makes him head of the Latin (sometimes called the Western) Rite, which is also the largest of the groups.

Even as head of an incredibly large and complex organization like the Catholic Church, the pope still has delineated responsibilities and duties to fulfill, along with a good deal of power, or at least influence. He's the head of his own country — the Vatican City State, about 120 acres and entirely surrounded by the City of Rome, created as an independent nation by the Lateran Treaty in 1929. As such he has a certain influence on the world stage, more as a moral voice than economic or military — and an expectation that he will use it for the benefit of mankind. 

He speaks to the world

There's a very active Vatican diplomatic corps, and Pope John Paul II, as pointed out by Biography, is often credited, along with President Ronald Reagan, with helping broker the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pope Francis brought together President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro, the first step in thawing relations between the two countries.

In accepting the papacy, a pope agrees to an astounding number of meetings. Per BBC, the pope must meet "at least once every five years with his more than 5,000 bishops from around the world — roughly 1,000 a year, or 20 a week." And that's not factoring in the countless public masses, speeches, and personal interactions he engages in daily. 

More often than not, a pope, once elected, serves for the rest of his life. Pope Benedict upset that apple cart by resigning in 2013, becoming the first pope to retire since 1415, per BritannicaBenedict died in December of 2022 but lived out the days of his retirement in Vatican City. Benedict claimed that basically he just wasn't up to the job anymore, and the Church deserved someone who was. 

Pope Francis certainly has his critics — every pope does — and ultimately, history will judge this papacy as it judges all world leaders. So far, Pope Francis — first and foremost, a pastor — has made a consistent commitment to offering hope to a thoroughly troubled world. His talk on Easter Sunday 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic was titled "The Contagion of Hope" — that thing that springs eternal.