Pope: From the Greek word papas, a term of endearment meaning "papa" or "daddy."

With the recent, historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S., many Christians may be wondering what exactly Catholics believe about the robed figure with the German accent and his line of predecessors. Why do Catholics have a Pope? Do Catholics worship him? Is his authority political, spiritual, or is he just a figurehead?

While I had a basic understanding of the Catholic papacy before his visit, I didn't fully grasp it. So, in an effort to better understand this central figure in Christendom and to help Christians more effectively dialogue, I dove into some heady reading materials from both Catholic and non-Catholic sources. Hopefully, my explanation here will offer some clarity on what Catholics really believe.

First, a summary: For Catholics, the Pope is more than a ceremonial leader. The Pope is considered the spiritual successor to the Apostle Peter. As successor to the "Chair of Peter," he is the Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church, God's steward ordained to authoritatively teach, unify, and protect God's people, keeping them free from error and deception (CCC 882, 890).

Of his many official titles, the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the head of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church made up of the college of Bishops). He holds the final word on matters of faith and morals (known as "papal infallibility"). In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (937): The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, 'supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls' (CD 2)."

There's a lot of strong wording here, but before we dive into some of the details, it's important to clarify that Catholics, in fact, do not worship the Pope or see him as a replacement of Christ or the Heavenly Father. From the Catholic perspective, the office of the papacy affirms Christ's Kingship and the Church's confidence in the Holy Spirit to guide believers. So, to fully understand the relationship Catholics have with the man they call both "Papa" and "Supreme Pontiff," let's look at a source all Christians have in common: Scripture.

Matthew 16: 13-19

While Catholic doctrine pulls from many Scriptures when defining Church authority, Matthew 16:13-19 is one of the most important. Indeed, Catholic teachings point to Matthew 16: 18 as the moment when Christ officially instituted Peter as the first Pope, so it's worth spending the bulk of our time here.

The scene opens with Jesus and the Twelve in the region of Caesarea Philippi – an area where ancient pagan worship of the Greek god Pan, the god of Spring and shepherds, once flourished (Ray 1999, 32-33). It was a dramatic place located on the side of a mountain with a sheer rock wall overshadowing the town with Pan's namesake, Paneas. Adding to the already stunning landscape, a temple to the Roman Caesar Augustus stood at the wall's highest point. The scene is ripe with symbolism for Catholics. Catholic apologist Stephen Ray points out, "By choosing this location for the appointment, Jesus clearly shows that he is setting up his divine kingdom in opposition to the worldly kingdom of the Roman Caesars, who claimed divinity for themselves" (1999, 32).

When Jesus came to the region of Ceasarea Philippi, he asked his disciples "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."