By Mellissa Martinez
By all accounts, Pope Francis has had a successful first year as leader of the Catholic Church. Celebrated for paying his own bills, washing the feet of non-Catholic prison inmates, residing in simple guest quarters at the Vatican and publicly pondering “Who am I to judge?” Francis has surprised the world as a modest pontiff who leads by example.
His likeable personality has turned him into a media superstar. In 2013, he was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”; on Ash Wednesday, his official magazine, Il Mio Papa, ‘My Pope,’ hit the newsstands in Italy; he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in February; and his Twitter account is steadily growing by 4,000 followers a day. Although the Pope’s assembly of five million followers does not rival Justin Bieber’s 35 million, give him time—there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world who want to hear what this man has to say. His profile picture shows a curious, friendly grin in front of a brilliant sky blue background. His handle, @Pontifex, reads “Welcome to the official Twitter page of His Holiness Pope Francis.”
Pontifex refers to a member of the supreme college of priests in ancient Rome. In Latin, it once meant ‘high priest or chief of the priests.’ The word derives from pont- ‘bridge,’ and facere, ‘make.’ Although bridge-building was once regarded as “pious work of divine inspiration,” the term also had the metaphorical meaning of ‘path-maker.’ The high priest was thought to build a path between the earthly world and that of God. Pontiff or ‘high priest’ derives from pontifex and has been used to refer to the Bishop of Rome since the mid-1600s.
The Bishop of Rome is not the only job description that the Pope must live up to. His position comes with eight official titles! He also answers to Vicar of Jesus Christ; Successor of the Prince of the Apostles; Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province; Sovereign of Vatican City State; Servant of the Servants of God; and Primate of Italy. To this last honorific, I raised an eyebrow. Although currently ‘primate’ refers to humans, monkeys and other mammals, it initially meant ‘high bishop or archbishop,’ from the Latin primas, ‘of the first rank, principal.’
The word ‘Pope’ comes from the Latin papa, and earlier the Greek papas, ‘father.’ Obvious word relatives include ‘papist,’ adherent of the pope, ‘papacy,’ papal office and the newer ‘popemobile,’ the infamous 1970s white bubble cruiser that transported John Paul II. Less common word derivatives of Pope are ‘popery, pontificial, popish, popedome and paparchy.’
Although Francis may be getting off to a clean start, the papacy is no stranger to scandal. The expression ‘Pope Pocket’ came about in the late 1400s to describe a secret pocket sewn into a garment. It carried the underlying reference of a greedy and corrupt church. Believe it or not, ‘nepotism’ also comes from the pope. In Italian, nipote means ‘nephew or grandson.’ This came from the Latin nepotem ‘nephew, grandson.’ The meaning of nepotism in English is attributed to the ancient practice in Italy of nepotismo, or granting special privileges to the Pope’s nephews. Yes, nephews: The term nephew was a widely accepted epithet for the Pope’s many illegitimate sons.
Other words relating to the church’s hierarchy include ‘vicar,’ ‘a representative or deputy of a bishop,’ which is the noun form of the adjective ‘vicarious,’ and is derived from the Latin vicis, ‘change, interchange of position.’ ‘Holy,’ from the Germanic hailaga, once meant ‘that which must be preserved, whole or intact.’ It is associated with Old High German, heil, ‘health, happiness or good luck.’ Expressions such as holy smoke, holy mackerel, holy cow, holy Toledo and holy moly are all considered euphemisms for the less acceptable blasphemes, holy Christ or holy Moses.
Perhaps Jose Bergoglio’s mass appeal has something to do with the fact that he has lived an atypical life for a Pope. He reports that he was once a literature professor, laboratory worker, floor sweeper and even a nightclub bouncer. Known for his honesty, he has chosen to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi. ‘Francis’ comes from the French François, and earlier Latin Franciscus. It literally means ‘frank, free, liberal and generous.’ As I see it, these are words that all Catholics can (and should) feel hopeful about.