The papacy has been described as one of the most enduring and influential of all human institutions. In his 2009 book, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, Roger Collins said: "No one who seeks to make sense of modern issues within Christendom – or, indeed, world history – can neglect the vital shaping role of the popes."
This is undoubtedly correct. After all, Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Only President Xi Jinping of China heads a bigger population, at 1.3 billion.
The papacy is traced to St Peter, believed to have died around AD 68. He is traditionally regarded as having been the longest-serving pope, at about 35 years. Next to him was Pope Pius IX, who was in office from 1846 to 1878 (31 years, 236 days) followed by Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005 (26 years 168 days).
Pope Francis is 266th occupant of the post. He is also the first Jesuit pope, the first to take the name Francis, and the first from the Americas.
But he is not the only pope. For instance there is also Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church in Egypt. He succeeded Pope Shenouda III, who died in 2012.
We appeared together once. Yes, in February 2000 Pope Shenouda and I featured in an Irish Times front-page photograph along with Pope John Paul II, then on a visit to Egypt.
I was reporting on this and, as is my wont, held back modestly and discreetly, peeking in the background but still visible. My mother has a copy of the photograph on a wall at home.
After it appeared a colleague sent a copy of the photograph by email to me in Cairo, with the caption: "Pope John Paul, Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church, and the one from Ballaghaderreen."
It was an outrage, as there was already a pope in Ballaghaderreen, of whom my then colleague was not aware. This was a particularly devout man who was known to all and sundry in the town as “the pope”.
His devotion also extended to politics. He used sell An Phoblacht, when it was not so popular and probably unprofitable. His experience was similar to that of many popes throughout history.
Pope: from Old English papa, Latin papa, Greek pappas – a child's word for 'father'.