The Papacy Was Christ’s Idea

Aug 27, 2017: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 22:15, 19-23
Psalms 138:1-3, 6, 8
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

St Catherine of Siena called the pope “my sweet Christ on earth.”

Saint Augustine wrote that, “Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia,” or “Wherever Peter [the papacy] is, there the Church is.” Indeed, it is impossible to picture the Catholic Church without the pope. That makes perfect sense, especially when we take a few minutes to consider the message of today’s readings, which every Catholic should know how to explain.

Some non-Catholic Christians mistakenly think that the Roman Emperor Constantine invented the papacy three-hundred years after Christ. Up until then, they claim, the Church had no single leader. Rather, the Bible alone showed individual believers the way to follow Christ, and the Church was a democratic gathering of those followers. Today, even some Catholics have accepted that point of view. Therefore, they want to change Catholic beliefs and practices the way modern political systems change laws and leaders — by opinion polls and popular votes. Besides forgetting that the list of books included in today’s Bible was not finalized until decades after the death of Constantine, and besides ignoring the fifteen centuries of Christian history between St Paul and Martin Luther, that point of view seriously misinterprets today’s powerful Gospel passage.

Christ’s Church was never a democracy. The Church of the New Testament, like Israel of the Old Testament, is a family of believers, a kingdom ruled by God, with Christ himself as the head of that family and the King of that kingdom. But Christ chose to exercise His headship through a representative, a vicar on earth, much as the Old Testament kings temporarily delegated their authority to the “master of the palace,” like Shebna and Eliakim, who are mentioned in the First Reading. In other words, Jesus himself invented the papacy as an instrument of unity and continuity for His Church, the community of believers forged by God’s grace and destined to overthrow the devil’s rule of evil, which has dominated the world since the fall of Adam and Eve.

This comes across in today’s Gospel passage both in what Jesus says to Peter, who was the first Vicar of Christ, the first pope, and also in where he says it.

The conversation recorded in this passage took place outside the city of Caesarea Philippi. That glorious city was constructed on the top of a huge hill, one side of which was a towering, bare rock cliff. It gave the city an appearance of invincibility and magnificence. Precisely there, standing near that imposing cliff, Jesus explains that His Church will also be invincible, because it too will be founded on rock, the rock of Peter, Christ’s Vicar, and the first Pope. The solidity of the papacy, Jesus explained, will not come from Peter’s natural, human qualities, but through the supernatural intervention of “my heavenly Father.” Peter, in other words will receive from God the authority to rule the Church in Christ’s name.

The keys and the “binding and loosing” symbolize this authority. The keys refer to the delegated authority held in ancient Israel by the King’s master of the palace, as mentioned in the First Reading. The binding and loosing refers to the authority of the Jewish synagogue leader to expel and reinstate people into the synagogue community, in order to preserve the community’s religious and moral integrity. This authority has remained intact through twenty centuries of popes, giving the Catholic Church a truly amazing record of unbroken unity of faith, worship, and governance, in spite of its members’ many failings.

It is worthwhile mentioning that critics disagree with this interpretation of Christ’s conversation with Peter. They twist this passage into nonsensical knots by pointing out that the Greek word for rock (Peter) is of the feminine gender (in Greek all nouns are gender-specific). They conclude, therefore, that Christ was not really applying the term to Simon the man (even though He changed it into a masculine form when He made it into a name) but only to Simon’s faith. Other critics take a different approach, claiming that Christ said these words while pointing to himself, making himself the rock. Such objections make complicated a text that is actually quite simple. They also ignore the many other passages in the New Testament that illustrate Peter’s primacy among the Twelve, and Christ’s plan to give His Church a hierarchical structure. For example: Christ originally renamed him “Peter” in Chapter One of St John’s Gospel, when He first met him. In that conversation there was no reference to faith or other ambiguous gestures. Solemnly renaming people in the Bible is much more than handing out nicknames; it signifies receiving a new role in salvation history, as in the case of Abraham and Jacob. In addition, during the Last Supper Christ prayed in a special way for Peter and gave him a special commission to “confirm your brethren in the faith” (Luke 22:32). Christ also gave him a unique commission after His resurrection, in John 21. Curiously enough, Peter’s name always appears first on the lists of the Twelve Apostles.

There is one Lord: Jesus Christ. He founded one Church to wage His definitive war against sin and evil: that Church’s keys are in Peter’s hands.

The papacy was founded by Christ and is sustained by Him.

What else could explain its incredible longevity and vitality, in spite of so much hardship, persecution, and corruption through the centuries?

It is natural for us to wonder why Jesus decided to organize His like this.

On the one hand, we have to remember that Jesus is God, and so it will not always be within our power to understand thoroughly all His plans or reasons. As St. Paul puts it in today’s Second Reading: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!”

We are just spiritual children making our way through this earthly valley of tears to our Father’s house, and we should be careful about demanding that God explain everything to us.

On the other hand, two thousand years of experience, theology, and the examples of the saints has left us with at least a partial understanding of the reason behind this strategy. Jesus certainly did not have to build His Church on the papacy; He freely chose to do it that way. This choice is just one more manifestation of His gentleness and mercy. Our Lord wanted to spread His Kingdom on earth through a Church that was both human and divine, just as He wanted to redeem us through the two natures (human and divine) of the Incarnation. It makes perfect sense that the God who reached out to us through the humble cave at Bethlehem would want to keep reaching out to us through the words and efforts of human beings. The papacy, and the Church as a whole, allows God’s ongoing action in history to maintain the human face of the Incarnation.

Christ guides us through His Church, and the visible head of that Church is the pope.

Today we have been reminded that this is true, and we should be glad to explain it to anyone who may not understand it. The pope is no political leader or authoritarian patriarch tyrannically imposing his will on Catholics. No, he is our spiritual father, appointed and guided by Christ to keep the Gospel pure and to apply it faithfully to the changing times and circumstances of history. In fact, the word “pope” comes from the Greek word for “dad”: “pappas.”

And so, as once again we celebrate Christ’s sacrifice and receive Him in Holy Communion, in union with the pope, the bishops, and all members of God’s family everywhere on this Lord’s Day, all of us, through our interest in what the pope says and does, and through our conscious, faith-filled, and well-informed obedience to his divinely guaranteed teaching regarding what true Christians must believe and how they must live, should stir up in our hearts that same sentiment expressed so beautifully by St. José María Escrivá: “Love for the Roman Pontiff must be in us a delightful passion, for in him we see Christ.”

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