The leader of the Catholic Church is known by titles that reveal aspects of his ministry.
Pope Francis is the 266th pope in an unbroken line that can be traced to St. Peter, the first pope chosen by Jesus Christ. Initially there was no particular title that distinguished the leader of the Catholic Church (though we can mention that the name Peter, which means rock, was the name that Jesus gave to the first pope, changing his name from Simon).
Over time the pope has gained many different titles that reflect different aspects of his ministry.
The word pope derives from Greek πάππας meaning “father”. In the early centuries of Christianity, this title was applied, especially in the east, to all bishops and other senior clergy, and later became reserved in the west to the Bishop of Rome, a reservation made official in the 11th century. The earliest recorded use of the title “pope” in English dates to the mid-10th century, when it was used in reference to the 7th century Pope Vitalian in an Old English translation of Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.
“Pontifex Maximus” is derived from the root word “pons” meaning “bridge” and reflects his role as “bridge builder”. This is because of his role as Cheif priest, representing the Lord who is himself the Mediator between God and Man; the ultimate Bridge Builder.
This means “Highest Priest”, like the previous, this was originally used by Roman leaders but now represents the place of the Pope as the Chief priest of the Catholic Church.
Similar to the two above, this title also refers to the Pope as the highest priest of the Church. The gifts of the Lord to his Church are great and many and these are distributed by the Pope who fills the Chair of Peter.
Servant of the Servants of God
Adopted by St Gregory the Great in 602, the title reflects the Pope’s role as chief servant in keeping with the admonition and the example of Christ “He who wishes to be the highest must be the servant”.
Vicar of Christ
“Vicar of Jesus Christ” (Vicarius Iesu Christi) is one of the official titles of the Pope given in the Annuario Pontificio. It is commonly used in the slightly abbreviated form “Vicar of Christ” (Vicarius Christi). While it is only one of the terms with which the pope is referred to as “Vicar”, it is “more expressive of his supreme headship of the Church on Earth, which he bears in virtue of the commission of Christ and with vicarial power derived from him”, a vicarial power conferred on Saint Peter when Christ said to him: “Feed my lambs…Feed my sheep” (John 21:16–17) and inherited by all his successors.
Sovereign of the Vatican City State
A recent title of the Pope since the Lateran Treaty giving the Pope temporal reins of power of the state of Vatican.
Bishop of Rome
Since the times of Peter, the Popes have always had the local See of Rome as their primary diocese.
Primate of Italy
Historically, each region of the Church has a “primate” which means the first or primary leader of the Church in that area. In the case of Italy, it is the Pope.
This title which is usually used when addressing the Pope and some other Church leaders, reflects on the Church’s holiness as the People of God and the sanctity of the Office of the Apostles.