It dawned on me during my Italian vacation that some of my readers may not understand how the whole “pope” thing is understood by Catholics. It’s pretty important, so let me spell it out.
I think most people understand that the pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but that’s not the whole deal. In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus tells Simon Peter “you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” (That’s the Good News Bible, a liberal and decidedly non-Catholic translation. More traditional translations also sow the seeds for the sacrament of reconciliation or confession, which is a whole ‘nother issue.)
The Catholic Church understands these verses to mean that Jesus made Peter the primary leader of the universal church, which the book of Acts seems to support. The Church also holds that when Peter died, that role didn’t die with him; instead, the leaders who had been supporting Peter prayed for God to point them toward a successor. And when that guy (Saint Linus) died, the next one was picked, and so on. Francis is the 267th in that line.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple; there were schisms and anti-popes and popes who died before being consecrated and popes who were just really bad guys. But that’s the concept, and when you see how Catholics treat Francis, it’s worth remembering that we see him as the successor to Peter and Vicar of Christ.