Vatican City: Notes

Papal Titles

The Sommo Pontefice, Sovrano dello Stato della Città del Vaticano derives his power from the fact that he is the Pope (Papa) and as such is the holder of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes = Santa Sede), the central authority of the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church (Sancta Romana Catholica Apostolica Ecclesia = Santa Chiesa Catolica Apostolica Romana).

He is Pope by virtue of his being the Bishop of Rome (Episcopus Romae, poetically Almae Urbis Episcopus = Vescovo di Roma). As such he and his predecessors on the Holy See have received a number of titles, some still in use, some with effective significance, others merely honorific.

1. The most firmly established official styles are found in the most solemn papal documents, know as bulls (bullae = bolle). They are invariably introduced with the phrase "NN, episcopus, servus servorum Dei" and are subscribed "NN, Episcopus Catholicae Ecclesiae". The literal meanings are, respectively, "NN, a Bishop, a servant of the servants of God", and "NN, Bishop of the Universal Church". The language is ancient and the interpretation is complex.

2. Other official styles are:

(a) Papa, abbreviated in signatures as "NN PP", and mostly restricted to this use in official contexts, but occurring in many liturgical and secular uses.

(b) Pontifex Maximus, abbreviated P.M. on Vatican City State coins and rendered in Italian as Sommo Pontefice (in Latin also Summus Pontifex); a historicising allusion to the Popes being the successors of the Roman Emperors, who had adopted the ancient style inherited from Roman pre-Christian religious administration.

(c) Romanus Pontifex = Romano Pontefice, a term standard in Canon Law and particularly emphasized in the context of Papal elections.

(d) Since 1870 the official ANNUARIO PONTIFICIO enumerates what purports to be the sum of Papal Titles as "Vescovo di Roma, Vicario di Gesù Cristo, Successore del principe degli apostoli, Sommo Pontefice della chiesa universale, Patriarca di Occidente, Primate d'Italia, Arcivescovo e Metropolita della Provincia Romana, Sovrano dello Stato della Città del Vaticano, Servo dei Servi di Dio".

Although this eclectic combination does not reflect accurately any individual official titles, it has become fossilized to the point that the omission, in the 2006 edition of the ANNUARIO (presented to the Pope on 18 Feb 2006), of "Patriarca di Occidente", although not documented by any officially recorded decision, stirred considerable speculation in sources both informed and uninformed, and required a half-hearted Vatican "explanation". This "explanation", while making it clear that the omission was deliberate, suggested a concern about the inherent vagueness of the style and its potential obstructive nature with regard to ecumenical ("catholic") outreach to the Eastern Churches; this "explanation" raised more questions and generated vehement controversy.

The jurisdictional titles of "Primate" and "Arcivescovo e Metropolita", while theoretically authentic, are of no practical application. The titles "Vicario di Gesù Cristo" and "Successore del principe degli apostoli (viz. San Pietro)" have long-debated theological and ecclesiastical significance, the subject of much emphasis during the Vatican I Council (1870); they do occasionally appear in contexts that often have a polemical intention.

The term "Sovrano dello Stato della Città del Vaticano" is artificially detached from its Constitutional antecedent, "Sommo Pontefice", as documented in the Leggi fondamentali della Città del Vaticano. The term "Servo dei Servi di Dio", inherited from the formula cited in 1., is detached from its context and is much misunderstood or misinterpreted in disregard of its roots in the Latinization of Biblical Hebrew. Originally it means "a VERY servant of God", "a servant of God par excellence".

It may safely be argued that outside the deference to the "authority" of the ANNUARIO PONTIFICIO the cited combination of titles has no effective application. It is interesting to note that in the Latin-centered world of the Holy See the sources do not provide an authentic translation into Latin of the cited combination of titles. The attempts in diverse sources show no agreement. This is particularly notable in the inability to find a respectable equivalent for the term "Sovrano dello Stato della Città del Vaticano". Apart from the rightly criticized Latinity of the term "Status Civitatis Vaticanae" itself, one finds "Caput Status Civitatis Vaticanae" and the almost comical "Princeps sui iuris Status Civitatis Vaticanae".

Last updated on: 26 Jun 2009 04:32:38