by Piet Coetzer

Final word on the Pope

Oldest election process in the world has interesting history

Lockup time.jpg

Earlier this month, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church went into their conclave for the most enduring election process in history, to elect a new pope as the head of the church. To guess at the origins of the term ‘pope’ is not too difficult, but some of the other terms and traditions involved – and even the name of the church – have some interesting and surprising roots. 

The term ‘pope’ derived from the Greek word “pappas”, which is a child’s word for father; and the Latin word “papa” (from the Greek) meaning ‘father’. The pope is not only the Bishop of Rome, but in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is also regarded as the successor to Saint Peter, the Apostle.

In the early centuries of Christianity, particularly in the east this title applied to all bishops and other senior clergy. Later, in the 11th century, it became reserved in the west for the Bishop of Rome.

The earliest use of the term or title, however, did not come from Rome but from the church in Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandra, which earlier was also a centre of Jewish learning, for many years competed with Rome and some other cities for leadership of the church. The title was first used after his death to describe the patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heraclas. He presided over the church in Alexandria from the year 232 until his death in 248.

The term first popped up in English in the mid-10th century, when it was used in reference to Pope Vitalian.


The ‘catholic’ part in the name of the church is of a less straightforward origin.

As a young boy growing up in the Protestant tradition of the Dutch Reformed Church, I often wondered why, during Sunday service when the congregation recited the creed of the church, we as Protestants confessed we believe in the “one, holy, catholic ... church”.

It turns out that the term ‘catholic’ derived from the Greek adjective “katholikos” and the Latin “catholicus”, meaning ‘universal’. It developed from the Greek phrase “katholou” meaning ‘on the whole’, ‘according to the whole’ or ‘in general’. It was a combination of the Greek words κατά meaning ‘about’, and όλος meaning ‘whole’.

The term ‘Catholic’, written with a capital ‘C’, was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early 2nd century to emphasise its universal scope.

Over the centuries, there has been much controversy and debate over the word ‘catholic’ or ‘catholicism’, particularly since the rise of ‘Protestantism’, about what the true ‘universality’ of the Christian faith entails. As late as 1988, after much debate and a special study by appointed scholars, the Dutch Reformed Church changed the wording of its creed to refer to a “holy, general Christian church” to indicate more clearly the universal Christian faith.

I must confess that this change has assisted my thinking to be less in debate with itself on Sundays during the reciting of the creed.


Before Pope Francis was elected on 13 March this year, again much was made about the cardinals going into their ‘conclave’ while the faithful waited outside for the traditional white smoke to come out of the chimney as an indication that they had completed the election process.

This tradition has very little to do with either mystery or an elevated process of dedication to the ‘holy’ task at hand. It comes from a very practical need going back centuries, to ensure the cardinals get the job done in good time.

The word ‘conclave’, which today means “a private or secret meeting”, comes from the Medieval Latin word conclāve, which literally means a room that can be locked, or unlocked, with just one key.

It was formed from the Latin words “con” (room) and “clavis” (key) to originally indicate an inner chamber or private room, or set of rooms, to which one would have needed a key. It was a "place that can be locked up" or a room or set of rooms that can be opened with only one key.

During medieval times, the position of Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was one of immense political and economic importance and influence. Small wonder that the election of a new pope most often attracted considerable political interest and interference from the rulers of the time. The result was that the election process, which became the responsibility of the cardinals in 1059, could become quite a drawn-out affair.

After the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, the process dragged on for 30 months, before Pope Gregory X was elected after the local magistrate locked the cardinals in the Episcopal palace and fed them only bread and water until they had completed the job. Gregory X then decreed in 1274 that in future, the cardinal electors should be locked up from the word go and not permitted to leave until the new ‘Bishop of Rome’ had been elected. The system was finally codified in 1904 by Pope Puis X. 

Over time, the outside political interference has largely disappeared. But this year there was again some lobbying, including from Africa, about from where the pope should hail. And Pope Francis started his tenancy at the papacy under a cloud of political controversy.

Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that the lock-up tradition has endured over the centuries.


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