to Simon Peter
According to Christian tradition, Peter visited Rome in the A.D. 60s and was martyred there during the reign of Nero. Catholics believe he presided over the church at Rome and became the first pope.
During the first decades of the Christian movement as the faith spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean world, a hierarchy of leadership began to emerge. Christians of different geographic regions chose one person as their authoritative leader and this person was called a bishop.
At first, all bishops were of equal authority, but in time the bishops of larger metropolitan areas exercised more influence over the church at large than bishops of smaller areas.
Because Rome was the largest city in the Empire and its capital, it was natural for the bishop of Rome to ascend above the other bishops in both influence and authority. By the end of the first century, other bishops were deferring more and more to the bishop of Rome and seeking his advice in their own decision-making.
By the time of Clement I, who was bishop of Rome A.D. 88-97 and one of the Apostolic Fathers, the organization of the early church and the primacy of Rome were well-established.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300s, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and the powers of the bishop of Rome increased.
In the 400s, conflicts developed between several churches in the eastern part of the Empire, and Pope Leo I tried to restore order at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Many of the bishops in the east refused to accept the authority of the pope, and Syria and Egypt broke away to form their own churches.
In the centuries to follow, as the church spread throughout Europe, the powers of the papacy increased dramatically even to the point where popes exercised the authority to confirm heads of state.
The political authority of the pope gradually changed, particularly after the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and the Catholic Counter Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reaffirmed the basic Roman Catholic teachings and the authority of the pope, but in subsequent centuries popes devoted themselves more to concerns of the church rather than concerns of state.
By the end of the 20th century, the prestige and moral authority of the papacy increased not just among Catholics but by Christians of many traditions.
The current pope, John Paul II, became pope in 1978. He was the first non-Italian pope to be elected since 1523. Born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, John Paul is one of the most popular popes in modern history.