The pomp of an ancient office that humble Pope Francis tries to shun


A long time ago when I was a little boy, my mother took me to Mass presided over by Catholic Bishop Caesar Gatimu (now deceased).

Thereafter I was put on a line with other children to receive the bishop’s blessings.

My turn came to kiss his ring, as was the custom. He looked impressive with his robes and the manner he commanded deference.

From then on until I was older, I would keep telling my bemused mom how I wanted to become Pope when I grew up. Tough luck I ended up being a mere journalist, and non-devout.


When it comes to the trappings of grandeur, nothing comes close to the Catholic Church.

St Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom, is a 16th century architectural masterpiece that dominates the skyline of Rome — the so-called Eternal City.

By: law, no structure built in the city should be taller or obscure the great Basilica’s majestic dome.

When the Pope is fully enrobed and sitting on the papal throne — yes, there is a throne — you are reminded that his predecessors were once the unquestioned masters of Europe and the West.

He remains an absolute monarch, the only other such being King Mswati of Swaziland. And the Sultan of Brunei.

Still, the Pope is one ahead of them as he claims unusual celestial authority.


When sitting on his throne as Supreme Pontiff to pronounce on a matter of faith and morals, he is said to be infallible — without error.

At that time no less than the Holy Spirit is said to be communicating through him.

Church doctrine says he is speaking ex cathedra.

You can see where the word “to pontificate” has its roots from.

The Pope travels with two hats: One as a Head of State and the other as the Spiritual Leader of Catholics worldwide.

He is the sovereign of the Vatican, which is otherwise more properly defined officially as the Holy See. It is a sovereign entity with a centralised government, ministers and bureaucracy.

As an independent entity, the Holy See enters into diplomatic relations and signs agreements with other states.

It maintains a permanent observer mission at the UN with the right to participate in General Assembly debates except to vote.

The Vatican City state within Rome, created by treaty with Italy in 1929, serves as the territorial headquarters of the Holy See and the seat of the Pope.

The city state has its own police force and is not subject to Italian jurisdiction.


One odd distinction about the Vatican is that its official language — Latin — is a dead language.

It is the only such language in diplomatic usage anywhere else in the world.

Sunday Masses throughout the world used to be celebrated in Latin until reforms were instituted in the 1960s to allow vernacular languages.

Up to today, diplomatic cables from Vatican embassies to headquarters are written in Latin.


A former US ambassador to Kenya, the late Smith Hempstone, described the Vatican diplomatic service as “very good”, more so in relation to countries with large Catholic populations.

That should not be surprising where there is a large and dependable group of priests and nuns to call from for information.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world.

The Church’s Jesuit order is a pre-eminent player in education. Pope Francis is the first Pope to belong to this order.

The Jesuits’ principal work is in education — founding schools, colleges, universities and seminaries.

They are intellectually adventurous, as with their flirtation with South America’s so-called Liberation Theology which made the Vatican uncomfortable that they were embracing Marxism.

Before being ordained a priest, Francis had a curious background: He was once a nightclub bouncer.

According to official Jesuit lore, he found his vocation to the priesthood when on his way to propose to a girl he loved. He passed by a church to go to confession and, as they say, the rest is history.

Welcome to Africa, Francis.