Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ask a Catholic: Who is the pope?

Pope Benedict arrives in Edinburgh, Scotland
earlier this morning. (photo c/o The Guardian)
 Earlier today, Pope Benedict XVI touched down in the United Kingdom for an official visit during which he will celebrate the beatification of one of the most well-known converts to the Catholic Church, Ven. John Henry Newman. Today is also the feast day of St. Cornelius (d. 253), pope and martyr. Since this early Christian martyr served as pope, it's a good excuse to examine a common question that alot of people ask Catholics: who is the pope? In today's installment of "Ask a Catholic" we'll give you the answer.

The pope (from the Greek papa, an affectionate term for father) is the bishop of Rome. There are thousands of bishops (Gk. episcopoi, or "overseers") all over the world who, through their lines of succession, can all trace their offices back to the apostles - the men who were appointed by Christ himself to lead his Church. ("Where is that in the Bible?", you ask. Well, Christ told the twelve "as the Father has sent me, even so I send you" [John 20:21] and the word apostle means "one who is sent." Jesus gave to his apostles certain ministerial gifts such as the power of "binding and loosing" and the power to forgive and retain sins- which implies a need to confess them -[see Matthew 18:18; John 20:23] so that they could effectively pastor the Church in the Lord's name until his return.)

Anyway, the bishop of Rome (the pope) is considered to be the leader of the Church's bishops; "the first among equals." This is not because of the efficacy of the man who holds the title, but rather because of the position he holds - bishop of Rome - which is also sometimes called the "Apostolic See." Why Rome? You have to remember that Rome was the capital of the Empire and, as such, was the most important city in the world during the apostolic age. It was there, that the two most important early leaders of the Church - Sts. Peter and Paul - were martyred for the Faith, and there that they are buried. Peter was Jesus' hand-picked leader of the apostles, and he was the leader (or bishop) of the Roman church before his death.

So, from the earliest days (and there are plenty of extant writings from the generations of Christians which immediately followed the apostles to back this up) the local church of Rome was considered to be the principal church in the worldwide Church and her bishop, the successor of St. Peter, came to be recognized as taking the place of Peter as the leader among the world's bishops. The pope today inherits and carries forth the same position of Christ-ordained leadership among the world's bishops that St. Peter held among the original apostles. For this reason, we recognize him as "Vicar of Christ" (because he governs the earthly Church in the stead of Christ); "Supreme Pontiff" (because, through Christ [the true and eternal high priest] he is the "supreme priest" of the earthly Church); and "servant of the servants of God." Pope Benedict XVI is the 265th pope.

Here are some of the pertinent biblical quotes regarding the position and responsibilities first given to Peter and passed on to his successors:

"He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'" (Matthew 16:17-19).

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

"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.' (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, 'Follow me.' (John 21:15-19).

"Delivery of the Keys" by Pietro Perugino, 1481-82,
fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.
If you would like more information on the role of the papacy in the Church, an excellent and very readable resource is Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church by Stephen K. Ray. If you'd like to get a hint of Ray's arguments, try this article first.