The Rise of the Papacy

The Rise of the Papacy

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Pope John Paul II – Image supplied by


No figure in the course of Christian History has been more popular or controversial other than Jesus, than the pope.  The pope is more than a person, he is an institution.  The papacy claims its roots in the very foundation upon which the Roman Catholic Church was formed.  Throughout the years the pope has yielded unprecedented political power and played a huge role in world history.  To this very day the pope plays a major part in history.  The Bishop of Rome was provided the opportunity of power by increasing authority of Rome and its influence over other providence’s   This Imperial authority expanded the church along with it as well.

Bishop Leo becomes Pope Leo I

One of the most important aspects of the papacy to understand is that the Roman Catholic faith believes that the church was built upon the apostle Peter.  Although you can find a list of popes dating all the way back to Peter, it was not until Pope Leo that any would actually take the title of papal claim.  I find it very interesting that in almost every journal and Christian history textbook papal history gives little information of distinctive papal history to the previous forty-three popes (not counting Peter as one).  Pope Leo did something different in papal history that allowed him to be thought of as the first actual pope.  Ferguson states, “Leo took the passages of John 21 and Matthew 16 and disposed of the primitive theory of episcopacy, making the authority of bishops dependent upon him. Canceling out the position of Cyprian that all bishops share Peter’s authority by faith, which did not pass exclusively in Rome, Leo held that in John 21 Jesus Christ extended to all bishops their authority through Peter and his successors.”[1]  This was huge step in the use of power by the papacy.  Pope Leo 1 took the power of the papacy to new heights when he proclaimed the authority of Jesus Christ through Peter and to the pontiff.  This is probably the most controversial point of the Roman Catholic faith that the Protestant Christians have debate upon.

Saint Leo I, "Leo The Great" pope from 440 to 461. Image from

Saint Leo I, “Leo The Great” pope from 440 to 461. Image from

Pope Leo establishes Papal Supremacy

Bruce Shelley states of Pope Leo I, “History indicates that the concept of papal rule of the whole church was established by slow and painful stages. Leo is a major figure in that process because he provides for the first time the biblical and theological bases of the papal claim.”[2]  What we find in the course of Christian history is that Rome slowly started to gain a foothold in the empire and Pope Leo I was the first to proclaim the papal supremacy.  We have learned what really set Leo apart was when he brokered a deal with Attila the Hun to spare the capital and withdraw from Italy.  This set a new precedent for the Bishop of Rome to have been a part of the peace delegation on behalf of the Roman emperor.   Constantine laid a foundation with the faith of Christianity in the empire and put a lot of pressure on the bishops during his reign to come to agreements in order to maintain this foundation.  Pope Leo changed the power the bishops were given by Constantine when he proclaimed the authority of Jesus Christ through Peter to the Pope and not the bishops.

Saint Gregory I, "Gregory The Great" pope from 590 to 604. Image from

Saint Gregory I, “Gregory The Great” pope from 590 to 604. Image from

Rome rises from the ashes – Pope Gregory I “The Great”

Pope Leo I may have established papal supremacy, but the term pope was not really used much until Pope Gregory I came into office.  .  Gonzalez states, “Little is known of Gregory’s early years. He may have been an important Roman official – a career for which he was undoubtedly trained by his family, which was of aristocratic origin. He became a Benedictine monk and then Pope Benedict made him a deacon.”[3]  Rome suffered an epidemic so bad that when Pope Pelagius died from the epidemic and Gregory was almost elected by default.  The bishops and the people wanted Gregory as pope.  The Lombard’s had been busy at the time with the Franks, but were a danger to Rome having conquered most of Italy.  Pope Gregory got food together to be given to the people, rebuilt the aqueducts, rebuilt the defenses of the city, and restored the garrison with drills.  Pope Gregory had become the defacto ruler of Rome and even established open negotiations with the Lombard’s for peace.  These efforts by Pope Gregory had earned him the title, “The Great.”

Crusades to Medieval Christianity to Reformation

From Leo to Gregory, the papacy started a rise of power that continued to grow.  Each century the papacy grew in power and prestige depending on which world power had most the control.  The crusades brought about a time in which the papacy saw its biggest direct opposition.  Islam and Christianity began to fight over the Holy Land and who had the ultimate claim over the land.  Pope Innocent III ushered the apex of papal power of the crusades and this brought about medieval Christianity.  Theology and missionary work took on a new vigor within the monastic orders.  The economic growth of markets brought about changes that cities were not prepared for and this introduced changes people were not prepared for in the ministry.  The new market caused an influx of people in towns.  It was during this time that the Protestant Reformation had its early beginnings.

Pope John Paul II quote; Image supplied by

Pope John Paul II quote; Image supplied by


[1]. Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[2]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language: Third Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).

[3]. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume One, the Early Church to the Reformation (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010).

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