The Non-European Popes

The election of Francis as a Pope from outside Europe is of great significance – not because he was the first non-European in the office, but because it reminds us that he was not. More accurately, as many press reports accurately put it, he is the first non- European pope since 13oo.  Before that, there were many others  – and the first use of the word “pope” was not applied to the bishop of Rome, but to other bishops of the Eastern Church. We have become so accustomed to identifying the Catholic Church with the Roman Catholic Church, that we forget that in its origins, the Church was Eastern, not primarily Roman at all.

The earliest “Christians” did not describe themselves as such, but simply as Jews who were followers of Christ. Later, when Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles took the message further afield, he travelled throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, as well as to Rome.

In addition to his Letter to the Romans, among his extant writings are letters to the church in Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica on the Greek peninsula, in Ephesus, Colosse, and Galatia in Asia Minor – and to the Hebrews.  So it is not surprising that the earliest leaders of the Church should not have been from Western Europe, at all. The (Catholic) Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University, Eammon Duffy, notes that for the first century of Christian history, there was no clear distinction between “bishops” and presbyters”, and when the bishop’s office did begin to become clearly defined in the early second century, this did not apply to Rome until about the mid- century.

Similarly, when the word “pope” was first used, it did not mean as it does today, a single head of the whole church, but was an honorific taken by a number of bishops.

In the early centuries of Christianity, this title was applied, especially in the east, to all bishops and other senior clergy, and later became reserved in the west to the Bishop of Rome, a reservation made official only in the 11th century. The earliest record of the use of this title was in regard to the by then deceased Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heraclas of Alexandria (232–248).


Reference to the Patriarch of Alexandria is important as a reminder that even as Rome did develop as an important centre of church authority, it was only one of five. In addition to the Patriarch of Alexandria, there were patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople – and of Rome. One striking example of to what extent the early church was based iu the East, not in Rome, comes from the record of the ecumenical councils, of which the first eight were held in the East (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople Two, Constantinople Three, 2nd Council of Nicaea). 

Although it for various reasons Rome was accorded particular respect, it was no more than one among equals. Rome was also assisted, in its rise to ultimate dominance, by developments in the Middle East, as the rise of Islam wiped out the influence of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. This left Rome and Constantinople in continuous rivalry for superiority, until first the Great Schism, and then the fall of Constantinople, left Rome in control of by far the major part of what was left of  the Christian Church. It was not until after the Schism that an ecumenical council was first held in Rome, with Lateran 1 in 1123.

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