What is a Pope/Papa?

Pope Peter VII, Coptic
Patriarch of Alexandria
When you hear the word "Pope" (or "Papa" in Latin, Russian, and Romance languages), most people think of the one in the Vatican - the Bishop of Rome. Similarly, when you hear the phrase "The Queen," many people automatically think of the British Queen, even though there are a good number of other Queens in active monarchies around the world, and there were even more in history. It is the same case with Pope. Some people incorrectly promote the idea that the only Pope is the one in the Vatican that heads the Roman Communion. Perhaps in both cases it is due to the media and Hollywood depictions. Yet, this is not accurate in either the modern or historical context. Other popes who are not rival claimants to the Bishop of Rome existed and continue to exist.

First, what is a Pope or Papa? First, Pope is merely the commonly-used English word for Papa, the Latin word that derives from the original Greek "pappas," meaning "father." Indeed, the title simply means nothing more than that – father. In fact, in the Byzantine Christian tradition, the title sometimes has referred to certain priests, with the title of "archpope" referring to certain senior priests. In the Roman Church, pope used to be applicable to any bishop. This was not restricted within the Latin church to the Bishop of Rome until the 11th century.

And what is a so-called "antipope"? An antipope is simply a counterclaimant to another hope for exactly the same episcopal See. Which is the Pope and which is the Antipope usually depends on the side you take in the dispute. Some Roman antipopes came about when rival factions of Cardinals elected different popes – and some of those have been so significant in Catholic history that they are still maintained in the records. Logically speaking, if someone is not a rival to another pope for the same See, then they simply cannot be an antipope.
Pope Athanasius,
Pope of Alexandria

And as it happens, the Vatican Pope was not even the first to be given that honorific. The Patriarch of Alexandria was actually the first to use it – and it is still in use there today. Among those other than the Bishop of Rome that have both modern and historical claims to use the honorific of Pope/Papa are the Coptic Pope of Alexandria (Coptic Orthodox), the Byzantine Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria (Greek Orthodox), and the Papa-Catholicos of Rome-Ruthenia (Gallo-Russo-Byzantine).

So, Pope/Papa simply means father – a paternal honorific title denoting the pastoral role of a church leader. Sometimes, such as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it can be a regular priest. Sometimes it can be the senior-most bishop. Either way, it evokes the commission of Christ to the Apostles to feed His sheep.