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The Papacy: an Introduction (1 of 3)


In this lesson, students will learn the number of Christians in the world and the three main divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. The breaking up of Christianity was not what Christ wanted. Students will understand that the papacy is one of the main doctrines about which Protestant and Orthodox Christians disagree with the Catholic Church. They will explore some basic facts about the papacy.

Lesson Development:


And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

These are the last lines in the Gospel of St. Matthew, known as "the Great Commission". They were spoken to the apostles by Jesus after His resurrection. How successful were the twelve – and those who came after them – in spreading the Gospel to all nations? Numbers certainly won't tell the whole story, (the depth of a person's conversion, the extent of their personal commitment to follow Christ are the most important considerations. It is, after all, not just the number of baptized or professed Christians we are interested in) but lets look at numbers for a minute anyway.

How many people are in the world?

6 billion

How many of these 6 billion would you guess are Christian approximately?

1.9 billion. [Since 1900 the number of Christians in the world has quadrupled, from 555 million (32.2 per cent) in 1900 to 1.9 billion in 2000 (31 per cent).]

Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Close to 1/3 of all the people on the planet profess to be Christians.

Just to place this in perspective: Islam had 200 million in 1900 (12.3 per cent) and 1.2 billion (19.6) now. Today – Hinduism 811 million, Buddhism 60 million, Sikhism 23 million, and Judaism 14 million. (World Christian Encyclopedia, June 2001).

Now, how many of these "Christians" do you think are Roman Catholic – approximately?

1 billion 30 million

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest body of Christians on earth. More than one out of every six people on the planet is Roman Catholic.

But what about Christians who are not Roman Catholic. Name some Christian denominations that are not Roman Catholic?

Point out that for the first 1000 years of Christianity there was only one church, the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is by far the largest, the most widespread, and the most ancient of Christian communions in the world, and is moreover the mighty trunk from which the other communions claiming to be Christian have broken off at one time or another.

Did Christ intend or want Christianity to splinter into different denominations as it has? Why do you think not? How do you think this splintering has hurt Christianity?

"I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment." (First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 1:10)

As Catholics we assert, with St. Paul, that Christ didn't want this splitting. We believe such divisions have hurt our ability to fulfill Christ's commission to spread the Gospel message, that a house divided against itself is a weakened house, and that Our Lord would like us, once again, to become one.

Major divisions of Christianity

Eastern Orthodox:

The Great Eastern Schism (from the Greek schisma for division or rent) took place in 1054 A.D. What has come to be called the "Eastern Orthodox" (from the Greek orthodoxos for "right believer") broke away from Rome. A schism involves a separation from the unity of the Church, especially from the visible head of the Church, the Pope. Despite the fact that Eastern Orthodox Christians believe almost all the doctrines that Roman Catholics believe, they reject the special status and authority of the Roman Pontiff, the pope.

Today there are 240 million Eastern Orthodox Christians mainly in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Asia.


The second great split in Christianity occurred some 500 years later, in the 16th century, when the German monk, Martin Luther, incited a rebellion against the authority and a number of the principle teachings of the Catholic Church. Within a span of just 70 years, the better part of Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, England, and Scotland had largely abandoned Roman Catholicism for the new Protestant view. (There were many political, social, and spiritual reasons why the Protestant revolt was so successful, reasons it will be important to examine at a later date.) Although commonly known as the Protestant Reformation, this movement was more properly a revolt. [Reformation means to make a person, institution, or procedure better, to improve something.] Because the Protestant movement involved a rejection of the institution of the Catholic Church, a denial of the authority of Rome, it is more proper to call it the Protestant revolt.)

Today there are 480 million Protestants.

Other Denominations:

In addition there are millions of other Christians in small groups that don't fit these main categories.

According to The Christian Sourcebook, there were 21,000 different Christian denominations in 1986, with 270 new ones being formed each year. Most of these are Protestant. The Church has been trying, and with renewed energy since the Second Vatican Counsel ended in 1965, to bring about a reconciliation with these Christian denominations. (An effort known as ecumenism "striving for reunification").

Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and other Christian denominations disagree with the Roman Catholic Church and with each other on any number of points of doctrine. One of the central differences is that Roman Catholics believe Christ, as "invisible" head of the Church, established a "visible" and supreme authority to lead His Church on earth, that is, the Pope (from the Classical Latin papas for father).

As Catholics we believe the Pope, in a special way, is Christ's personal representative on earth (the Vicar of Christ) and that the Pope receives his authority directly from the Lord. (The Orthodox Church believes the Bishop of Rome is truly a priest and bishop, but that he has no special authority beyond that of any other local bishop. Protestants, on the other hand, believe all Christians are equally priests (the universal priesthood of believers). Protestants have ministers, but the Protestant clergy is not set apart, and is not invested with any special spiritual powers other than those possessed by the rest of the Christian community.

Understanding the important place of the pope in the Church and why and how Christ established the papacy is of central importance in understanding who we are as Roman Catholics. This is what we will be learning in this unit.

To begin our discussion of the papacy, let's look at some basic facts we should all know our papacy.

  • What does the word "pope" mean?   (Latin papa or father)
  • Who was the first pope?   (St. Peter)
  • Who is the present pope?   (Pope Benedict XVI)
  • What are some of the common titles given to the Pope?   (Holy Father, Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of the West)
  • How many popes have there been?   (Pope Benedict XVI is the 265th Pope)
  • Where does the Pope live?   (Vatican City, Rome) (show pictures)
  • What is the name of the great Church in the Vatican, the heart of the universal Catholic Church?  (St. Peter's Basilica)
  • Why is St. Peter's Basilica so important?  (The main altar of St. Peters was built directly over the tomb of St. Peter, who was first among the apostles and the first pope. It is symbolic of the fact that the Church is founded on "the rock" which is St. Peter.)
  • How is the new pope determined?   (Election by the Cardinals – only those under 80 years old may vote) at a special conclave in the Sistine Chapel.

During this unit we will be explaining the special nature and gift of the papacy as well as looking briefly at its history.

We will also be answering – I think convincingly – all the objections to the papacy put forward by our separated Protestant and Eastern Orthodox brethren.

We will make the case that Christ Himself established the papacy; that from the very beginning it was Christ's wish and intention that there be one visible head and supreme authority in the Church, the Pope.




J. Fraser Field. "The Papacy: An Introduction." Catholic Education Resource Center.

This lesson plan may be reproduced and distributed by any means as long as credit is given to the original author and to the Catholic Education Resource Center.

The Author

J. Fraser Field is managing editor of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Catholic Education Resource Center
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