Pope's Twitter Handle: What Does "Pontifex" Mean, Anyway?

The Emperor Augustus was a "pontifex maximus." So how did that become a term for the pope?
The Emperor Augustus was a "pontifex maximus." So how did that become a term for the pope? (photo: Register Files)

Recently it was announced that Pope Benedict's new Twitter handle is @pontifex.

Why did he pick this name, and what does it mean, anyway?

The word's origin is more surprising than you might think!


Other Possible Names

Pope Benedict might have picked other names. Some plausible ones include:

  • @pope
  • @popebenedict
  • @popebenedictxvi
  • @benedictxvi
  • @popebenedict16

Why didn't he pick any of these?

I would suggest two reasons.


Some May Already Be Taken

People have already been using some of the plausible papal Twitter handles, and Twitter does not easily reassign such names.

That's why my own Twitter handle is @JimmyAkin3000 (Click here to follow me). Someone was already using my preferred handle, and they don't easily reassign them.

Still, for the pope they might make an exception.

In fact, for all I know, they may have made an exception. Somebody may have already been using @pontifex.

But I think there's another, even more practical reason.


Pope Benedict Is Thinking Ahead

While I hope that Pope Benedict reigns for many more years, he is not planning on being pope forever.

In thus think the main reason that he chose the handle he did is because he's thinking ahead and didn't want to make everyone have to sign up to get the next pope's tweets--at whatever time there is a new pope.

In other words, he's leaving future popes a ready-built Twitter platform that they can use to get their message out.

He thus didn't include anything specific to him--no variation of "Benedict" or "XVI" in the handle.

That leaves us with generic words for pope--like "pope" and "pontifex."


Why Not "Pope"?

"Pope" is the English word for "pope," but it isn't the word for "pope" in all languages.

That's important, because the Holy See is trying to run a global, multi-lingual outreach.

They could use the Latin for "pope," but the Latin for pope is just "papa"--and that has the wrong ring as a papal Twitter handle, if you could even get it.

This makes the choice of "pontifex" (a Latin term for "pope") a natural, even if it is a bit harder to remember.

But, as a bow to the prominence of English on the Internet, and a desire to make it easy for people on the Internet to follow Pope Benedict, we don't have an extension at the end of the name.

Twitter feeds in other languages, do, such as @pontifex_it (Italian), @pontifex_es (Spanish), or @pontifex_ar (Arabic).


So What Does "Pontifex" Mean?

We've mentioned that it is a Latin term for "pope," but the two aren't strictly synonymous.

If you talk about "the Roman pontiff," you're referring to "the pope of Rome."

They're the same guy. (As opposed, for example, to the Coptic pope.)

But the words have different origins and shades of meaning.

"Pope" is derived from "papa," which means "father", but "pontiff"--and its Latin counterpart, "pontifex"--comes from roots that mean something completely different.


Bridge Builder???

Believe it or not, "pontifex" comes from Latin roots meaning "bridge builder."

Pons means "bridge," and the -fex suffix is derived from the verb facere, which means "to make."

A pontifex, according to its word origins, is a bridge builder.


Origin vs. Usage

Of course, where a word ultimately comes from does not determine its meaning. How the word is actually used determines meaning.

Otherwise, the word "nice," which comes from the Latin word nescius, would mean "ignorant" (or at least "not knowing").

And "That's a nice-looking dress" would be fighting words.


Something to Make Jack Chick Smile

Though the origin of the word seems to be "bridge builder," the word pontifex ended up being used to refer to a class of religious leaders in ancient, pre-Christian Rome.

That's right, the original pontiffs were pagan priests.

There was an ancient "college of pontiffs," which was headed by the pontifex maximus (the "highest pontiff"), who in later times was identified with the Roman emperor.

Until the emperors turned Christian, at which point it was recognized that this title could better be applied to the pope.

So that will make anti-Catholic conspiracy buffs like Jack Chick happy.

Presumably the idea was that, by performing the duties of their office, they "built bridges" (in the metaphorical sense) between man and the gods.


Not That There's Anything Wrong with That

And there's nothing intrinsically unwholesome about that.

This is what religious leaders are supposed to do.

They just need to be clear on who the true God is and how he actually wants people to approach him.

But from ancient Roman priests to Jewish priests to Catholic priests to Baptist pastors, they're all trying to do fundamentally the same thing: Help men relate to the divine in the proper way.


Baptizing the Term

And so, because Christian religious leaders were trying to build bridges between God and man, they came to be referred to in Latin by the pre-existing term for this activity.

Bishops, in particular, came to be referred to as pontiffs.

As the highest Christian leader, the highest-ranking bishop, the pope became referred to as the pontifex maximus or high pontiff.

It should be noted, though, that this is not one of his official titles.

If you check the Annuario Pontifico ("Pontifical Yearbook"), where the pope's titles are listed, pontifex maximus isn't one of them.

Still, it's used to refer to the pope in practice.

And now it's his Twitter handle.

His first tweet is scheduled for December 12th.


In the Meantime . . .

If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict says about the book of Revelation.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?