This Sunday's Gospel sees Jesus respond to Peter's act of faith with the words 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven'. Ever since the reformation, the meaning of these words of Jesus have been disputed. The reformed Churches interpret them as meaning Jesus would build the Church on the rock of Peter's Church but nothing more. For them, Jesus did not mean the rock as being Peter himself, much less his successors.
The ministry of the pope is founded on the role that St. Peter had in the college of apostles. There is strong evidence in the scriptures that Peter was appointed by Christ as the first among the apostles. He was named by Christ as, ‘The rock on which I will build my Church’ (Matthew 16:18ff). So too was he commanded by Jesus to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith, ‘I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers and sisters’ (Luke 22:32). He was present with the Lord for many of the significant moments of his life and despite his glaring weaknesses, he would go on to become a fearless preacher of the good news and a witness to Christ’s love. Peter was appointed by Jesus so that the apostles might be one and undivided. When we bear in mind that the Gospels were written some time after the Lord’s resurrection, it suggests that Peter had already begun to assume a role of leadership in the whole Church and had become a figure of authority in regard to the teaching of the faith and how it was to be understood (cf. Acts 15:7ff). He began to be seen as a figure of unity and communion that he shared with the other apostles as their leader.
As the years went by and as other men were appointed as successors to the apostles, so too did the Christian community appoint a successor to Peter. Thereafter the office of the Papacy was born. Catholics see in the Pope a visible sign of the unity of the Church and the center of her life of communion. Through what he does and what he stands for, he calls all Christians to be united and personifies that same gift of unity that God has given the Church and the world.
As I write these words, I recall the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome in April 2005. Who will forget those days of sadness and yet joy as we saw the fruit of the Pope’s labours so evident in the people he united in life and in death? All his life, and especially since he became Pope, John Paul had dedicated himself to the work of reaching out to countries and other religions in order to further the cause of peace and reconciliation.
At his funeral Mass in St.Peter’s Square, we caught a glimpse of how much how much he had achieved or rather how much God had achieved through him. At the largest funeral in living memory were gathered heads of State from countries all over the world, seated together in St.Peter’s Square and united in mourning on that April morning in 2005. Many of them represented countries that enjoyed good relations with the Pope but not with each other. Yet here they were together in the same space, united in mutual admiration and respect for the same man in whose honour they had come. If only for a few hours, we caught a glimpse of the dream for which Jesus had lived, suffered and died, ‘May they all be one, just as Father, you are in me and I am in you’ (John 17:21). Through his servant John Paul, God stirred up in us again the hope of unity and peace, not just in the Church but across the face of the earth.
Many non-Catholics object to the office of the Papacy and accuse the Pope of taking the place of Christ who is the real head of His Church. Whatever truth was in this argument when less than worthy successors of Peter were in office, this could hardly have been said of Pope John Paul II. Everywhere he went around the world, he never failed to point to Jesus Christ as the light and Saviour of the world. It is very encouraging to see this continue in the papacy of Pope Benedict who has committed himself to dialogue with people of other faiths in order to learn about how to exercise more effectively his role of unity in the Church and in the world.
Our understanding of the Church is one that is real, visible and human. This we understand while still believing in her divine nature that the Lord has conferred upon her. We do not understand ourselves as a community who merely represent Christ in the world. Jesus was and is ‘The Word who was made flesh and who dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). He was the presence of the Father in human form, someone ‘Who we have heard, who we have seen with our eyes, watched and touched with our hands’ (1 John 1:1 ff). In the same way we as the Church are his presence; his flesh and blood, his voice, his hands and feet. Even though God is not limited to His Church and remains God, the Church is still, ‘The people whom God has taken as his own, for the praise of his glory’ (Ephesians 1:14). Because we are part of a visible Church, it calls for a visible head. Since we cannot see Christ physically with our eyes, he needs a vicar, someone to represent him, a centre of gravity, a focal point, a doctrinal spokesman to gather together, to represent, to sanction and to nourish the thinking and faith of the Christian community.
Reflecting here on the ministry of the papacy casts my mind back to my first visit to the United States in 1995. I was on summer experience as a seminarian in South Bend, Indiana. I recall one of the things that struck me forcibly then was the number of Christian denominations that existed there. Driving around the city and countryside took me past several Churches, mostly with different names: there were the first Baptists; the Pentecostals, the Unitarian church, the true Church of Christ, the Episcopalian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church and so on.
It seemed good that so many Christian Churches existed but rather sad that there seemed to be a lack of cohesion between them, each having a different interpretation of the faith. When this is the case, the unity of the Church suffers and the effectiveness of her witness to the Gospel is reduced. The experience confirmed the Catholic belief that the Papacy is willed by God as an office to ensure communion between all the Churches around the world.
The ministry of the Pope is one that ensures that all of us stay together, in a symbolic upper room, being together in Christian fellowship, praying together, celebrating the Eucharist together, and remaining faithful together to the teaching of the apostles (cf. Acts 3:42). This we do with the successor of Peter in order to stay close to the mind of the Lord.
For many people today, the Catholic Church stands or falls on the Papacy. Some point to the scandals of the past and abuses of power as evidence of the Papacy being a human construction rather than a divine one. Yes, in the history of the Church there have been successors to this great office who have sanctioned deeds in the name of the Church and of God that were sinful and immoral. This point was acknowledged by Pope John Paul himself and in the Jubilee Year of 2000 when he publicly asked forgiveness for those sins of the past. But as has been said before, the fact that the Church still exists and has survived is testimony in itself of her origins in the mind of the Lord and as a great sign of God’s power working through human weakness. When we recognise this in the facts of history we are not celebrating anything we have done, but praising the Lord who never abandons his Church.
Another source of our gratitude to God is how Pope John Paul II gave and how he transformed the office of the Papacy like no other before him. He travelled the world, visiting over 100 countries, announcing the good news of God’s love and bringing the human face of the Church everywhere he went. On his first foreign visit as pope to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas in 1979, he announced to the whole Church, ‘I am entirely yours!’ In the following 26 years he fulfilled that promise and was a voice of peace and hope for the whole human family. As we reflect on his life and his death, I think that history will be very kind to Pope John Paul II and that he will be remembered as one of the greatest Popes in the history of Christianity. He opened up a path that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have followed that irreversibly committed the papacy to a future of peace and reconciliation.
What then of the many Christians who do not see things this way? What of those who do not accept the authority of the Pope? We recognise this with the many communities who have become separated from full communion with the Catholic Church. In the past, the teachings of the Church did not adequately realise the gifts of the Spirit and the grace of baptism that God had given non-Catholic Christians. Therefore we gave the impression that unless people were in communion with the Church of Rome, even their very salvation was in danger. Today we understand things differently. We teach that the true Church of Jesus Christ as He intends it to be, continues in the Catholic Church. However, we also recognise that those who have been baptised and who believe in Christ as Lord and Saviour are brought into a certain, though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. The Church recognises that all people can reach salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ yet who sincerely seek God. We recognise that God communicates to them in the dictates of their conscience where they are alone with him. Such men and women are not visibly united with Christ’s church but they enjoy in some degree the invisible life of the Church, that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are called to extend the hand of friendship to our fellow Christians and members of other religions and recognise them as someone for whom the Jesus died too. May we not just communicate to each other as institutions but as brothers and sisters in Lord.
For a more detailed defence of the Papacy, see Jimmy Aiken's article: 'The Papacy: God's Gift to the Church'.
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