When Was the First Pope Elected?
Between the third and fourth centuries, the title of pope was bestowed on bishops other than the head of the Church and sometimes on priests. The word comes from the Latin papa (from the Greek pappas) meaning father. The title has been exclusively reserved since the 9th Century for the Bishop of Rome. From the earliest times the Bishop of Rome’s claim to the supreme headship of the Roman Catholic Church has been acknowledged by all within the fold.
Among his other titles are Holy Father, Vicar of Christ and Pontifex Maximus, meaning chief bridge-builder. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope is elected as the direct successor of St. Peter to be the visible head of the Church on earth. By virtue of his position, he is the Church’s supreme governor, judge and teacher.
There was no fixed process for papal selection before 1059. Popes, the bishops of Rome and the leaders of the Catholic Church, were often appointed by their predecessors or secular rulers. While the process was often characterized by some capacity of election, an election with the meaningful participation of the laity was the exception to the rule, especially as the popes’ claims to temporal power solidified into the Papal States. The practice of papal appointment during this period would later give rise to the jus exclusivae, a veto right exercised by Catholic monarchies into the twentieth century.
The lack of an institutionalized process for papal succession was prone to religious schism, and many papal claimants before 1059 are currently regarded by the Church as antipopes. Furthermore, the frequent requirement of secular approval of elected popes significantly lengthened periods of sede vacante and weakened the papacy. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II succeeded in limiting future papal electors to the cardinals with In nomine Domini, creating standardized papal elections that would eventually evolve into the papal conclave.
The papal conclave of January 1276 (January 21–22), was the first papal election held under the rules of constitution Ubi periculumissued by Pope Gregory X in 1274, which established papal conclaves. According to Ubi periculum Cardinals were to be secluded in a closed area; they were not even accorded separate rooms. No cardinal was allowed to be attended by more than one servant unless ill. Food was to be supplied through a window; after three days of the meeting, the cardinals were to receive only one dish a day; after five days, they were to receive just bread and water. During the conclave, no cardinal was to receive any ecclesiastical revenue. These provisions were regularly disregarded, at the discretion of the cardinals, particularly the requirement of being incommunicado.
Although several times before papal elections were held in the circumstances similar to those described by Ubi periculum, for the first time such situation was formally required by a papal Constitution. For this reason, the Conclave of January 1276 can be considered the first papal conclave in history in the strictly legal sense of this word.