Four years ago, at the end of this month, Pope Benedict XVI resigned his office as pope, the Vicar of Christ, the successor of St. Peter and head of the universal Church. This was the first time in 600 years a Roman Pontiff had resigned his office.
I am writing this column from Rome, where I am visiting the Diocese of Lincoln’s seminarians and priests studying at the North American College and at pontifical universities, and the priests of our diocese working in offices of the Vatican. The Eternal City holds a lot of vivid memories for me, having spent 12 years living and working in Rome. It is always a joy and a grace to return to Rome, the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter, and the center of the Catholic Church across the world.
And as I pray, and visit friends and former colleagues in Rome this week, I have been thinking often of Pope Benedict’s resignation, which took the world by surprise, and of the importance of the papacy in the life and mission of the Church.
At their very first meeting, Jesus renamed his apostle Simon, calling him “Peter,” the rock, and declaring that he would build his Church upon that rock. Jesus promised Peter the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” and promised him that what he forgave on earth would be forgiven in heaven, and what he bound on earth would be bound in heaven. Later on, Jesus singled Peter out, commanding him to “feed my sheep,” in a special and particular way. He also charged him to “strengthen your brothers.”
In the early Church, after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles looked to St. Peter for leadership. They met in council with one another, they debated with one another, and even admonished one another, including St. Peter: but still, they looked to his authority and leadership, because Christ had called Peter to lead. Early bishops looked to Peter’s successors in just in the same way.
The pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. He is called to shepherd the Church, and he is gifted by the Holy Spirit to be protected, so that he cannot teach, as pope, in a manner contrary to the Gospel. He is called to lead the Church, and to safeguard our unity as disciples of Jesus Christ. The pope, in fact, is the “principle of unity” among every member of the Church, because he safeguards and leads us in unity with one another, by leading us in unity with Jesus Christ.
We are called to communion with Christ and his Church through unity in sacraments, faith, and governance. We are unified through baptism, Eucharist, and the sacramental life. We are unified to Christ and the Church through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered in churches in every part of the world. We are unified to Christ and the Church through faith: we profess one Creed, rooted in the Word of God, and are graced with the doctrine of the Church to explain and unpack the meaning of divine revelation. We are unified to Christ and his Church through obedience to the governance of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, in communion with the bishops of the world, who are given authority by Christ for the sake of leading his Church.
Christian unity is not an easy proposition. In fact, Christian unity is a gift of God’s grace to sinful people. Our own sinfulness, and even our own earnest and sincere disagreements, would rupture the unity of the Church without the grace of the Holy Spirit, the faithfulness of God, and the gift of the Church to sustain and unite us. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the life of the Church is “the thrilling interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty,” a “dramatic form of grace,” through which God’s holiness is revealed. Indeed, that the Lord has sustained the unity and integrity of the Church, despite profound disagreements, difficulties, and sinfulness, for more than 2,000 years, reveals the profound and awesome holiness of God.
The pope stands at the center of that “thrilling interplay” between the divine grace sustaining the Church, and the profound humanity of her members. Though each pope himself has been unworthy, he is called to ensure that the Church remains faithful to Christ, and actively committed to the mission of the Gospel. He is called to foster unity despite disagreement, and to seek, understand, and proclaim the truth of the Gospel, so that every person will know the mercy and love of Jesus Christ.
Despite each pope’s own limitations, God calls him, and graces him, to call the Church to the communion of faith, sacraments, and governance, so that we might know Jesus Christ intimately, and serve him faithfully.
Each pope brings his own gifts, and insights, and skills to the mission to which he is called. Each, therefore, has different emphases and abilities. But the truly extraordinary thing is that God protects each one, and graces each one, in the exercise of a role unlike any other: in the human leadership of a sacred institution, in safeguarding and protecting and proclaiming a supernatural reality: that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, through which the ministry of Jesus Christ remains present and transformative in the world.
As I reflect this week from Rome, I feel called to pray for the pope, tasked with such a difficult mission, and to ask you to do the same. I feel called to pray for those who have preceded Pope Francis, that each one of them will enjoy eternal life with God. I feel called to pray for the popes who are to come. Most especially, I feel called to thank God for the gift of St. Peter, and all those who have followed him, as the rock upon which the Church is built.