© Matthew A. C. Newsome 2003
I am a Catholic and I was always taught that St. Peter was the first pope. But someone recently told me that the papacy was not founded until 538 AD. Is there any truth to this?
To answer your question, we first have to go back to the time of the French Revolution. During the 1790’s, life in France was turned upside down. Their governmental, social, and religious norms were completely changed in a very bloody and violent revolution. Take into account some of the other radical changes occurring in that era, such as the Industrial Revolution, forever changing our idea of production and labor, and you get some sense of just how unsettled many people felt their lives to be.
In the midst of all this turmoil, some looked for certainty in the teachings of the British millenarians. These were “end-time prophecy” adherents who anticipated the immanent return of Christ and the establishing of His earthly kingdom that would last for a thousand years. This idea comes from a particular interpretation of the book of Revelation, specifically chapter 20.
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended.” -- Rev. 20:1-3
The Catholic Church has traditionally identified Christ’s Kingdom with the Church, and the “thousand years” mentioned in Revelation as symbolic of a very long time, without denoting a specific duration. This Catholic understanding of the millennium is described by St. Augustine in his City of God, where he points out that 10 is the number of perfection, and the millennium is the cube of this number (10 x 10 x 10); therefore the millennium represents the complete fullness of time.
But these British millenarians held a different view, called premillennialism. According to them, Christ’s Kingdom is distinct from the Church, and the millennium mentioned in Revelation is a literal, future reign of Christ over His yet-to-be established Kingdom. They associate the Second Coming with the beginning of this Kingdom. This belief is still common among certain Fundamentalist and Evangelical sects, and has recently spread into even more mainline Protestant denominations (consider the impact of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series or Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth popular in the 1970’s).
To these millenarians, the turmoil of the 1790’s was evidence that the end times were near. One sure sign of this was the Catholic Church’s loss of power in France. The French National Assembly early on decided that Catholicism (the religion of most French people) would cease to be the official state religion, and should in fact be subject to the state. This was important to the millenarians because they identified the Church as the beast and the pope as the antichrist. This belief was nothing new to Protestants, going all the way back to the writings of Martin Luther. But it was of particular importance to the millenarians and their special brand of end-times prophecy.
When French troops marched on Rome in 1798 and actually took Pope Pius VI prisoner, many interpreted this to be the “deadly wound” inflicted upon the beast, mentioned in Revelation 13. People thought that this was the beginning of the millennial Kingdom.
So what does all of this have to do with the papacy and the year 538? Everything. According to the millenarians, the papacy would last exactly 1,260 years. They arrived at this conclusion first by identifying the pope as the antichrist, and then by interpreting the “twelve-hundred and sixty days” mentioned in Rev. 12:6 in light of 2 Peter 3:8, which says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” So, if the papacy is supposed to last 1,260 years, and it ended in 1798, one only has to do the math to figure out that it began in 538.
In other words, these anti-Catholic millenarians claimed that the papacy was founded in 538 in order to “prove” their claim that Christ’s Second Coming would occur in 1798. Of course, when 1798 came and went, and Christ did not return as predicted, these “prophets” had to change their tune. But the 538 date somehow managed to hold on and is still claimed as the start of the papacy by certain anti-Catholic sects, such as the Seventh-day Adventists. 
So did anything actually happen in 538 that might give some credence to these claims? No, not really. This year falls towards the beginning of the reign of Pope Vigilius (537-555), the fifty-ninth pope after St. Peter. Although Vigilius was elevated to the See of Rome in a somewhat unusual manner (involving not a little intrigue in the Imperial Courts), he was legitimately installed and enjoyed a decent, if somewhat turbulent reign, defending the Roman faith against the Monophysite heresy and the Roman city against invading Goths. All that history tells us of the year 538 is that Vigilius sent letters to bishops of a couple of other Churches (Arles and Braga) imparting his papal decision in certain disciplinary matters. In other words, nothing that exciting happened -- nothing that would set his reign apart from the fifty nine before him as the "first pope."
This is the weakness of the claims such as these. If Peter was not the first pope, who was? There is no agreement at all among anti-Catholics. Some recognize the authority of the first seven Ecumenical Councils and claim that the “apostate Catholic Church” began after that date. Others claim that the Catholic Church, and the papacy, was established in the fourth century by the Roman Emperor Constantine.  None of these claims stand up to actual historic research. The history of the papacy is as old as the history of Christianity.
We see evidence of this in the writings of Clement, the fourth Pope. Clement wrote to the Corinthians, addressing a dispute among them, “If anyone disobey the things which have been said by [God] through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. . . . You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy.” He wrote this in the last decade of the first century, while the Apostle John was still alive in Ephesus (busy writing Revelation).
Just a few years later, St. Ignatius of Antioch (installed as bishop there by St. Peter himself), wrote of the Church of Rome that it enjoyed the “presidency” among the Churches. In his letter to the Roman Church in 110 AD, he wrote, “You have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force.”
Perhaps the primacy of the Church of Rome, and therefore the Bishop of Rome, is best expressed by St. Irenaeus, who wrote his major work, Against Heresies, in 189 AD (almost 350 years before the papacy was supposedly founded in 538). And so we will close with his words:
"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.”
If anyone wishes to learn more about the various erroneous historical claims made by different Fundamentalist groups against the Catholic Church, a good resource is Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Karl Keating, published by Ignatius Press in 1988.
For more information about millenarianism, dispensationalism, the “Rapture,” and other end times movements and the Catholic response to such groups, refer to Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? by Carl E. Olson, published in 2003 by Ignatius Press.
A good, Catholic, exposition on the Book of Revelation is Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: Mass as Heaven on Earth, published by Doubleday in 1999.
When they had gathered together they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” – Acts 1:6-7