If No One is Pope, Everyone is Pope. A Reflection on the Unitive Dimension of the Pope’s Office and Charism

popeFrancis-blogadw-placeholderToday we welcome Pope Francis to the United States. In so doing, we welcome more than just a popular public figure. We welcome someone whom the Lord prays for in a very special manner. Simon Peter and his successors enjoy a special charism to unite us, by the Lord’s prayer and grace. Let’s look at the scriptural foundation of this prayer and charism and see how essential the office of the pope is for us.

One day, near the final ascent to Jerusalem, the Lord warned of a fundamental problem that the Church would face: disunity. He turned to Simon Peter and said of the Twelve,

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you all that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32).

To “sift like wheat” is to divide, and Satan would work hard at it in order to divide the apostles, and the Church with them. The debate about who was the greatest only served to show what a mess we human beings, when left to our own devices, will make of something.

Yes, Jesus plainly says that the devil is going to work hard to divide you. And Jesus’ plan is not to write a book and then just hope that everyone follows it and interprets it in the same way. His plan is not to pray that they all work out their differences.

Jesus’ plan is to pray for one man, Simon Peter. Now Peter is not invisible, nor do his words require interpretation. For if anyone wants to ask, “What do you mean by this?” he can just go right up to Peter and say, “Peter, what do you mean by this?” And the real Peter can answer.

So, the Lord’s plan for unity is to have one visible man; one living, breathing source of unity. The Lord will pray for him; thus we can be assured of right outcomes in matters of faith and morals if we follow Peter (and his successors, the popes) in matters that might divide us.

Peter fulfilled this task of unity well and consistently, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, the history of the early Church. He rose to settle the question of Judas’ successor (Acts 1:15ff). He preached the first public sermon (Acts 2). He was inspired in a dream and then baptized the first Gentile converts (Acts 10). He arose at the Council of Jerusalem to settle the dispute between the “Party of James” and Paul, Barnabas, and others about Gentile converts (Acts 15).

Yes, Peter strengthened and unified the brethren. This does not mean that he did so without sin. On one occasion St. Paul even had to rebuke Peter (cf Gal 2). For though Peter had taught correctly (that Gentiles were in without lots of customary Jewish observances), he did not fully live the teaching, drawing back from close association with the Gentiles in order to avoid offending Jewish Christians. We do not argue that Peter and his successors are sinless, only that in solemnly teaching on faith and morals they enjoy the prayer of the Lord and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, never to teach error and thus unite us in the truth.

Peter’s successors must unite us. Though they are not sinless men, we trust in God’s protection for their solemn teachings and thus preserve union through the prayers of the Lord for Peter.

And boy do we need it! We Catholics are a difficult lot. Shepherding Catholics is harder than herding cats. But thanks be to God for the Lord’s Prayer and for the Holy Spirit. If it were not for these, the Church wouldn’t have lasted twenty minutes! But here we are more than two thousand years later, not without our troubles and tensions, but here and fundamentally united (with legitimate diversity). There is just no other way to describe the fundamental unity of the Catholic Church for all these years than as a miracle.

Compare this to the Protestant denominations, which severed their ties to Simon Peter and have now divided and subdivided some thirty thousand times—sifted like wheat to say the least. And the divisions are not just about minor things like vestments or the type of music. The differences are about fundamental and essential doctrines such as how one is saved, if once saved means always saved, if Baptism is necessary, if adultery is grounds for divorce, whether homosexual acts are sinful, if abortion is wrong, whether there is a priesthood, and how critical texts of the Bible are to be understood. The moral and doctrinal divisions are deep and concern foundational matters related to salvation. So divided is Protestantism that many Evangelicals have more in common with Catholics (on the moral issues) than with the old, mainline Protestants.

The tragic disunity of Christendom is not entirely the fault of the Protestants. We Catholics contributed to breaks that happened in the 12th century (with the Orthodox) and the 16th century (with the Protestants).

But the disunity among Protestants does put to the lie that people can be united by a book or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (apart from the authentic discernment of the Church’s magisterium).

The simple fact is that we have to have a pope. And if no one is pope, everyone is pope. Some may be dismissive of the need for “some pope” to tell them what to think. But truth be told, by not acknowledging some visible authority outside their own mind, they are merely appointing themselves as pope of their own little “denomination of one.”

The pope is not possessed of unlimited power. He is the Servant of Divine Revelation, not its source. He cannot overrule dogmatically defined faith that comes from Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Neither does he micromanage every aspect of Church life. But in service of the Lord’s prayer and vision, Simon Peter and his successors strengthen and unite us by working with the bishops to resolve significant matters that arise in the Church in terms of discipline and the understanding of doctrine.

But without him, we are trouble, serious trouble—trouble times thirty thousand!

In welcoming Pope Francis, we welcome the visible source of our unity. It is not merely that Jorge Bergoglio is a good negotiator. Whatever personal skills he may have, our faith lies not in those skills but in the prayer of the Lord Jesus for him to strengthen and unify us. Unity is not always easy. To accept the leadership of another is, frankly, hard. But the unity the Lord intends us to have with Simon Peter is a lot easier than the endless divisions we create on our own, apart from the Lord’s Prayer for Peter.

Welcome Pope Francis today and pray for unity among all Catholics and Christians. We may have minor differences and even a few hurtful ones, but thank God we don’t have thirty thousand differences!


A Study in Contrast and Paradox: The Pope’s Thursday Schedule

CREDIT: Jaclyn Lippelmann, The Catholic Standard

On Thursday morning, Pope Francis will speak at a joint session of Congress. Shortly thereafter he will journey to a nearby center of Catholic Charities. In so doing, he will be meeting very different groups of people: politicians, and the poor, legislators and the less fortunate.

There is in these visits a powerful contrast. But not all things are as they appear for not as man sees does God see. Let’s consider both.

The day will begin in the well of the U.S. Congress. This will be the first time that a pope has addressed a joint session of Congress. He does so as a religious and moral leader, but also as a head of state. In fact, many of the honors the pope has been accorded, including arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, an official welcome, and Secret Service protection are due to his status as the head of state of the Vatican City State, the smallest internationally recognized state in the world.

But do not miss the stunning image here: a pope addressing Congress. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before the 1960s. Catholics were generally considered with suspicion by the Protestant majority in the United State. They wondered if our loyalties were here or with the Vatican. Wave after wave of Catholic immigrants in the early 20th century also created fear in the minds of many Americans. These Catholics immigrants were poor and brought with them many of the social ills associated with poverty. Thus, anti-Catholic sentiment ran deep before the 1960s. And despite Catholics gaining local power in many northeastern cities, it was generally difficult for Catholics to be elected to national office. In those times, people who talked about the important of the “separation of Church and State” usually had Catholics in mind.

Much of the severity of sectarian hostility has waned, even as secular hostility against the Church has risen. But most people who lived before 1960 could never have imagined a pope addressing a joint session of Congress or receiving the sorts of state-sponsored honors you have seen; it would have been politically impossible.

Yet note a further paradox! In many minds, this address of the pope to Congress is one to arguably the most powerful body on this planet. The men and women gathered there sit atop billion dollar budgets and make decisions that affect the entire world, let alone the United States. The fate and well-being of many depends on them.

But not all things are as they appear. For that body of individuals is likely the second most important group the pope will address on Thursday. The most important and influential group awaits him at his next stop: the poor at Catholic Charities.

Please be assured that I do not make this observation with the common class hatred/envy that simplistically concludes that all rich and powerful people are evil and greedy while all the poor are good and holy. Things are never that black and white. There are sinners and saints in each group.

But understand this: the poor, the suffering, and the vulnerable are far more powerful than most of us imagine. Consider that while the poor need us in this life, we are going to them in the next. The Lord Jesus counseled us, I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9). In other words, if we are generous to the poor here, they are going to be powerful advocates for us on our judgment day.

Mother Mary, too, spoke of a great reversal that is coming: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53). And Jesus added, But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). And Psalm 72 says, The Lord hears the cry of the poor (Ps 72).

It seems that many of us here are going to have to make an appointment to be able to see them in Heaven! Many who are poor, suffering, and vulnerable now are going to have the highest places in Heaven, and they’re going have a lot to say about our final judgment. It’s not bad advice to befriend them now because we’re going to need them later!

So which is the most powerful group the pope will address on Thursday? Well, you decide. But remember, things are not always as they appear; God does not see as man sees.


The Apostolic and Evangelical Journeys of Jesus, Writ Large! A Reflection on the Biblical Roots of a Papal Visit

blog9-20-2015In the papal visit soon to unfold in this country we see writ large a process and pattern established by Jesus Himself. In this blog post we will look especially at the process of preparation and see that it is quite directly connected to the way in which Jesus operated.

To many readers of the gospel, who overlook the details, it could seem that Jesus and the Twelve just wandered about in a haphazard manner, charismatically deciding “on the fly” when and where to go. But according to Scripture, this is not the case.

Jesus had a plan, an itinerary of his journey, laid out rather carefully it would seem. Further, He sent “advance teams” on ahead to prepare the people for His arrival. Consider the following quotes:

Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. And He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:1-2).

And He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him (Luke 9:52).

Further, His “apostolic band” required financial and personal support. Here, too, this support was not accomplished in some disorganized way; it was more organized than many today would think. Scripture attests to this:

Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources (Luke 8:1-3).

So the evangelical journeys of Jesus were not some haphazard wandering about.They visits were planned and the people were prepared. And here was the goal: that when Jesus entered, The crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him (Luke 8:40).

It is like this with the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. The pope is the Vicar of Christ; that is, he is Christ’s representative. People are not clamoring to meet Jorge Bergoglio; they are eager to meet the Christ he represents and whose Vicar he is.

It is much like the visits of Jesus in ancient Galilee and Judea, just writ larger—much larger! The villages and towns of the ancient Holy Land were seldom larger than a thousand people. Only Jerusalem, Caesarea, and some of the Greek cities of the Decapolis were much larger. Today, metropolises contain millions of people and the distances between them are global!

Many have been preparing the cities of Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York for his coming, and crowds will greet the pope, the Vicar of Christ.

Consider well the complex preparations! Be grateful to those who have labored long and hard. There have been long hours, complex arrangements, publicity, fundraising, logistics, last-minute changes, public safety, and delicate negotiations with religious and government officials and private citizens.

I have personally observed the sacrifices that many at the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Washington have made. Do not underestimate the personal price that many have paid to ensure that all is ready, safe, and organized.

Be grateful, too, for the many benefactors who have generously supplied funds for this visit. Gratitude is also due to government officials, the Secret Service, the D.C. Police, and many other “first responders” who stand ready for the arrival and poised to care for any difficulties that might arise. Acknowledgement is also due to many individuals and business owners who will be inconvenienced due to the festivities. We are and must be grateful for their patience and sacrifice!

Yes, it is the apostolic and evangelical journeys of Jesus, writ large. They were organized and underwritten. So is this one. Many sacrificed to prepare towns for Jesus; many here have done the same for the pope. The Scriptures are really not so distant after all. They are still fulfilled in ever larger and more visible ways.

Surely Pope Francis would be the first to say, “Viva Christo Rey!” Indeed, may Jesus Christ be praised!