Who Put This Pontifex in my Maximus?

November 30, 2023 | Jim Angehr

Within the next month or so, each of my sons will be heading abroad, one to Iceland and another to Turkey.  The travel bug strikes again! 

If I were given a sightseeing version of the "one last meal" proposition, I'd make my final destination Rome. The Eternal City. It’s my most frequented destination outside of the U.S., a polis of many mysteries and a deep sense of its own past. Do you think that Independence Hall is old? Rocky, meet the Pantheon. For every moped-stuffed street or cobblestoned alleyway you’ll stroll in Rome, wheels within wheels and layers upon layers of history ring beneath your feet.

Trust me that it would have been much cooler back then than now, but I was a Latin nerd in high school––so much so, in fact, that one of my absolute highlights from that period was a three student tour of Rome directed by my Latin teacher and erstwhile hero, Mr. Drago. A fun fact is that when in Rome, we lodged at a––I am not making this up––convent of Lebanese nuns in the Trastavere section of the city. It was a surprisingly racy pad. (Narrator voice: "The nunnery was not at all racy.")

So, for a week and a half, the quartet of myself, Mr. Drago, Robin, and Rachel would trek through the city, stop frequently at Roman ruins, and then read selections from ancient authors who were talking about the actual places where we were sitting and looking around. At the Roman Forum, we translated excerpts from Cicero’s Catallinarian speeches in the very spaces where the great orator delivered them. While reposing in the vast spaces of the Circus Maximus, we absorbed the great brewmaster, Pliny’s, words of reflection about the. . . Circus Maximus. In the nearby port city of Ostia Antica, Mr. Drago shared with us from the Confessiones St. Augustine’s famous vision he received in the adjacent piazza. And so on.

Whether as a high schooler or now, if I unreservedly revel in the living history of the Roman Empire that the city showcases, I’ve always been a bit more ambivalent about the overlay of the Roman Catholic church on top of it all. Now, I don’t at all intend what I’m about to say as an anti-Catholic screed––Catholics are my brothers and sisters in the faith––but I find myself persistently skeptical of the combination of Christianity and power.

In the case of Rome, after the Eternal City succumbed to multiple sackings and disrepair, it was the church in the Middle Ages that not only sought to rescue, preserve, and rebuild the town but also self-consciously endeavored to cast a vision of its own scope and power within the mold of the ancient Roman Empire.

Here’s a case in point: all over Rome, you’ll see inscriptions that read “PONT MAX.” That’s short for “Pontifex Maximus,” which is the official, Latin designation for the Pope. (In Italian, the Pope is “Il Papa,” and in Latin, “Pontifex Maximus.”) For example, at the Trevi Fountain, you’ll glimpse an inscription, “CLEMENS XII PONT MAX” (Pope Clement XII), “PIUS IX PONT MAX” (Pope Pius IX) at the Coliseum, a “PAULUS V PONT MAX” (Pope Paul V) at St. Peter’s Basilica, etc.

“Pontifex Maximus” itself means something like “chief priest,” but here’s the fascinating part for me. Before Popes were called Pontifices Maximi, it was the title for Roman Emperors, since among other duties, it was for the Emperor to serve as the chief priest on behalf of all of his subjects. It’s no coincidence that the church appropriated that descriptor for its own leader: as the Roman Emperors were the primary potentates of the realm, so also are its Popes.

I suppose it couldn’t have been otherwise, and again in order to disclaim that I’m not aiming to throw Catholicism under the bus, we remember that here in the West before the Reformation, the Catholic church was the church. Still, whether in medieval or modern times, Catholic or Protestant, it seems that the closer that the church gets to power, the more problems arise. We remember as well that Jesus of Nazareth identified himself as among us “as the one who serves,” and who in fact “did not come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Moreover, as Advent is soon upon us, we remember that Jesus came to us from a manger, and not from a palace.

Christian, do you have any measure of power? Let’s give it away.



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