When a Berlin friend told us a month or two back that a mutual acquaintance, a Catholic priest called Matthias Heinrich, had just been appointed as Bishop of Thibaris, we turned to our atlases to find out which part of the world Father Matthias was bound for. Thibaris, it turns out, is an archaeological site in central Tunisia, dashing our hopes that the Berlin priest might henceforth be presiding over affairs at an ancient and resplendent cathedral. In time, we discovered that the newly consecrated bishop would not be leaving Berlin at all, but that Thibaris is merely a titular see of the Roman Catholic Church — a title bestowed on a bishop who does not have his own diocese to look after. One wonders whether, were there by some remote chance a lone Catholic still living in Thibaris, she or he might have some right to appeal to the pastoral authority of the new bishop, whose daytime job is now as an auxiliary to Berlin’s long standing archbishop, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky.
Enthralled by this little nugget of ecclesiastical geography, we set about our researches and now find that Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are awash with titular sees — named after places that figured, often only parenthetically, in early Christian history, but which have long since slipped out of the ecclesiastical limelight. For example, the late Polish Pope (Jean Paul II), was for five years Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków and for that spell held the titular see of Ombi, a wee spot in Egypt’s Nile valley just north of the border with Sudan (now known as Kom Ombo). The late Pope’s sole visit to Egypt was in February 2000, and Kom Ombo did not figure on the papal itinerary.