Why is the pope called 'Your Holiness'?

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Q. A Protestant friend asked me recently why Catholics sometimes refer to the pope as "His Holiness." He wondered whether this is meant to imply that the pope is in essence holy. I had to admit that I had no idea. Can you enlighten me? What is the origin of that title? (Sioux City, Iowa)

A. The use of the term "His Holiness" in addressing or referring to the pope can be traced back several hundred years, although it is difficult to identify any particular event that first occasioned its use. In honoring its supreme religious leader with that title, the Catholic Church is not alone.

The same term is used to designate the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as spiritual head of the Orthodox community, as well as some leaders of other religious traditions including Buddhism (notably the Dalai Lama).

In applying the title to the pontiff, Catholics make no judgment on his personal sanctity. Only God, of course, is by His essence holy, but all who believe in a divine being are invited to strive for that ideal.

Peter (1 Pt 1:16) reminded the early Christians that the Hebrews, as God's chosen people, were called to sanctity and that they, too, were pledged to that same ideal as disciples of Jesus. The title "Holiness" denotes the fact that the pope, by virtue of his election, belongs to God in a special manner and is called to practice exceptional sanctity.

This should remind every Catholic to pray regularly for the man who bears that heavy responsibility. Ronald Knox, the British biblical scholar who was a convert from Anglicanism, once wrote, "Perhaps it would be a good thing if every Christian, certainly if every priest, could dream once in his life that he were pope, and wake from that nightmare in a sweat of agony."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016