I love context.
Knowing the gestalt, the big picture of something is a good thing in my book. The more of the big picture I see, the happier I am, especially in dealing with The Hierophant. This card is called "The Pope" in some decks.
In some respects the Hierophant can be seen as similar to a shaman according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierophant the hierophant is a "person who brings religious congregants to a place that is deemed sacred".
Whether that "place" is a mental state, an emotional feeling or a literal sacred space or place of worship, the connotation is the same...the Pope has to do with group spirituality. This holds true even if you think in more literal terms of leader of a religious organization like the Roman Catholic pope.
If you look at the history and gestalt of Tarot, it is interesting that the imagery and meanings are most allied with Roman Catholic Pope, and that sort of conventional, literal religion. Tarot developed in Medieval Europe, in France and Italy (according to the few sources I've found on the matter). These countries are still overwhelmingly Catholic. It is also interesting that the Pope card follows the Emperor card. I wonder if there was any intent to show one supercedes the other. Does the Pope replace the Emperor because it is next in order or does the Emperor replace the Pope?
There may have been connotations of that type originally. The mythos of Tarot holds that the Major Arcana as a whole reflects life's journey from beginning to end. Even if you look at it abstractly, the traditional order of the major arcana moves from more concrete "people in your neighborhood" personas to more abstract representations from nature. It does take a certain maturity to think abstractly and symbolically. As a whole, we have matured as a species. Now ideas like time as a whole, and multiverses have come into our midst. Time isn't a predictable fate anymore. The major arcana isn't a start to finish life story anymore.
No card supercedes another...each is a valuable lesson all on its own.
That is in itself a lesson for some. I learn that I see this through my personal lens of "no, god's law does NOT come before the rule of law". Others may chafe at that idea and try, through the old order of the cards, prove their point of view is the valid one...but that is another story.
Yes, I'll warrant this card is my personal nemesis. Not for the lesson of balance that it teaches, but in that its symbolism is so saturated with Christianity. I have unpopular opinions in that department...let's leave it at that. I wanted to give that disclosure in all fairness, but will do my best to be objective and "big picture" about the card, irregardless of my personal feelings.
This card was, for that reason, one of the most difficult for me to learn
This card, I think, takes some maturity to appreciate, even though it comes fairly early in the major arcana.
The balance, as I see it, is between obedience and autonomy.
In the Wikipedia article we saw earlier, and in literal function, the Hierophant is a group religious leader - rules, conventions, majority, social acceptance, codified doctrine and dogma.
For some this is comforting tradition and ritual made more powerful through shared belief.
For others, it is slavish, it is empty servitude, not spiritual expression.
For some the lesson is one of seeing where we need more group cooperation. "No man is an island" as John Donne said (www.brainyquote.com). Groups can be means of companionship, support, and the shared expression of spirituality may be genuinely benevelent, beneficial, instructional and uplifting.
But then we grow up. For some the experience remains the same. They are truly attuned to the particular group experience. But for many more, the rules and ritual become wrote, empty, habitual at best. At worst they become shackles, a cage around both heart and mind.
So the lesson of balance is one of obedience versus autonomy: when to take advice and when to follow what YOU know beyond doubt to be true. It is a balance of obediently following the external rules and expectations of others, and following your internal knowing, your direct, individual experience of the sacred.
When the Pope pays a visit to your reading, think of where you need to be a team player, and where you need to be individual. Where do you need to follow convention and where you need to be unconventional.
As always, the key is wisdom...to know what, when and how much. It also takes a measure of courage to take the unconventional path. In the words of that memorable movie quote from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"..."it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one's enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to one's friends".
Being a tarot reader, you don't have to be psychic to tell which path I chose.
Wishing you all the comfort and all the independence you need.