What Does a Pope Do?

On Wednesday, a bunch of old men vacationing in Italy selected an Argentine man named Jorge Bergoglio as America's Next Top Pope.

Bergoglio immediately accepted the position and chose new name (Francis). He changed into a white robe. He went out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and blessed everyone like they had just sneezed. He was now the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics.

"Did you hear about Jorge?" "What—he got married?" "He's the new pope."

That's cool.

What exactly is the pope's job?

Jesus can't be here, but he left his buddy who's a real cool guy and can help you with whatever you need.

Although he never had the formal title, Jesus Christ's friend Peter is generally considered the very first Pope. Catholics believe that, before ascending to heaven, Jesus chose Peter to rule over the entire Church; that power then passes down to all subsequent popes. (Popes are considered the successor not of the pope they're replacing, but of Peter himself.) As head of the Catholic Church, the pope is charge of controlling Church doctrine. He's God's spokesman.

In 1870 a Vatican Council declared that the pope's pronouncements are infallible when he is speaking on behalf of the whole Church on matters of faith or morals. So, if he releases a statement saying something like "by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that [X is true]," that is infallible. If the Pope observes to his private secretary that he thinks it's going to rain this afternoon, that is not. (Only one pope has used the infallibility card since it was put on the table; Pius XII declared that the Assumption of Mary was Catholic dogma in 1950.)

Infallibility doesn't mean that he's incapable of sin (though, in theory, he tries to avoid it) or magically great at math or anything.

Bishop to E-4
The pope's official title is "Bishop of Rome."* Since Rome is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, this gives him dominion over the entire Church. As the Bishop of Rome, the Pope has "supreme, full, immediate, and universal power" over all Catholics. His duties include: providing spiritual guidance to members of the church, appointing bishops and cardinals, presiding at beatification and canonization ceremonies, writing documents that define the Catholic Church's official position on world issues, speaking with world leaders and politicians on behalf of the Church, and acting as a missionary. He could also declare a Crusade if he wanted to get into the spirit of #ThrowbackThursday.

Run Vatican City Like Diddy
The pope is also the head-of-state of Vatican City, an independent sovereign city-state located within the borders of Rome (at .2 square miles, it's the smallest country in the world). Technically, Vatican City is an independent country under the sovereignty of "The Holy See"—the pope's bishop's seat—that could exist even if the government of the Catholic church relinquished its sovereignty. That will almost certainly never happen; they've got all their stuff there already. If it did, Italy would probably just reabsorb it.

The pope periodically represents The Holy See (and, so, the Vatican) in U.N. sessions, but is unable to vote on measures because the state is a non-member observer.

As for administrative stuff, he doesn't have to hire the Vatican cops or anything. But he does appoint the guys who hire the guys who hire the cops ("the Gendarme Corps of Vatican City State").

A Day in the Life of the Pope
Like all old people, the pope rises with the sun. A normal day at the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI began at 7 a.m. with a celebration of Mass. Much of the rest day was spent working in close contact with his private secretary/possible secret boyfriend Archbishop Georg Gänswein—like when Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott opened an inn on Tori & Dean: Inn Love.

Benedict and Gänswein would have breakfast together at 8, break for a couple hours while the pope worked privately (AKA: secret nap), then join back up for audiences and morning meetings with important people. They'd have lunch together, go for a walk together, and take a little nap at the same time (most likely not together.) The pope would get back to work around 4 (writing formal communications;=, answering correspondence, refreshing his Twitter @-replies like crazy) and continue until dinner (with Gänswein) at 7:30. 8 o'clock was TV time (just the news – boring). Then the pope would work for a couple more hours before going to bed at 11. On Wednesdays, the pope hosts a General Audience for a few thousand Catholic pilgrims visiting the Vatican. On holidays, he delivers big Masses at St. Peter's.

It's not clear exactly how Gänswein will fit into Pope Francis' new life; he will keep his job as head of the acting pope's household, but will live with Pope Emeritus Benedict. Will Gänswein have two breakfasts, two lunches, two naptimes, and two dinners? Will he split the day in half? Who gets him on holidays? Can't everything just go back to being the way it was? :(

Can any dummy off the street become pope?
Not any dummy, but a lot of dummies. The only real requirements for the man elected pope are that he be a practicing Catholic (no heretics allowed), of a certain age. What that certain age is isn't written down anywhere. Some people throw out 25 as the minimum age, since that's how old you have to be to become a priest. The New York Times spoke to a bunch of cardinals who felt the ideal candidate would be in his 60s. You also can't have a history of buying and selling positions within the church.

Generally, laymen aren't elected pope. (The last layman pope on record is Benedict IX, a rich kid who got the job by family connections, and was later accused of raping and murdering people). Popes are selected by the 120-member College of Cardinals, and those guys generally just pick someone from their group. If elected, a layman would have to first be ordained a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop before he could accept the office of the Bishop of Rome. Ain't nobody got time for that.

How long does the job last?
Even if he goes insane, becomes corrupt, or is a dick, a pope is pope until he dies or quits voluntarily. Most die.

*Technically, the full title is: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God. You can call him "Pope Frank" for short.

[Catholicism for Dummies / Christian Science Monitor / Slate / State.gov // Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP.]