AskDefine | Define pontiff

Dictionary Definition

Pontiff n : the head of the Roman Catholic Church [syn: Pope, Catholic Pope, Roman Catholic Pope, Holy Father, Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome]

User Contributed Dictionary



“bridge builder”


  1. The Pope
  2. A bishop
  3. A pontifex

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Pontiff or Pontificate was a title of certain religious leaders, now used principally to refer to the Pope.


The term derives from the French word pontife, from the Latin pontifex, a title used for high priests of the Roman Empire. The word pontifex is commonly held to derive from the Latin root words pons, "bridge" + facere, "to do" or "to make", with a literal meaning of "bridge-builder". This, however, is disputed - it may be only a folk etymology. See Pontifex Maximus for more details on the original Roman term.

Usage in the Catholic Church

Pontiffs were originally simply chiefs or high priests of any religion; thus writers from the 16th through to the 18th centuries referred equally to Christian pontiffs (bishops) and "Mahometan [Muslim] Pontiffs" (caliphs) or Swami ( Hindu ). Over time, however, the term became associated with the highest religious authority in the Catholic Church — the Pope. It is often modified by an adjective - for instance, "Supreme Pontiff", "Sovereign Pontiff", "Roman Pontiff" - to distinguish the Pope from "ordinary" pontiffs.
In the modern era, the modifying adjective is usually dropped, with the term being used exclusively to refer to the Pope, as in "The Pope visited Cuba in 1998, the first visit by a reigning pontiff to the island."


pontiff in Bulgarian: Понтифекс
pontiff in German: Pontifex
pontiff in Spanish: Pontífice
pontiff in French: Pontife
pontiff in Latin: Pontifex
pontiff in Dutch: Pontifex
pontiff in Polish: Pontyfikat
pontiff in Finnish: Pontifikaatti

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Grand Penitentiary, Holy Father, abuna, antipope, archbishop, archdeacon, archpriest, bishop, bishop coadjutor, canon, cardinal, cardinal bishop, cardinal deacon, cardinal priest, chaplain, coadjutor, curate, dean, diocesan, ecclesiarch, exarch, hierarch, high priest, metropolitan, papa, patriarch, penitentiary, pope, prebendary, prelate, primate, rector, rural dean, subdean, suffragan, vicar
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