Readers will have no trouble noticing the particularly pope-centric nature of this week’s issue of OSV Newsweekly.
Given this emphasis, it is worth taking a moment to consider the role of the papacy in the Church and the world — a role that was defined by Jesus himself when he changed the name and the role of Peter, saying: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).
From the earliest moments of Christianity, Jesus recognized the need for a universal leader of the Church, and since that time, 265 more popes have followed. Though each pontiff has his own background and gifts, the role of the papacy has remained consistent for two millennia. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, identifies the Holy Father as a unifier of the Church, stating: “And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”
As a promotor of unity, the major role of any pope is to secure the future of the Church by unifying the bishops, the primary teachers of the Faith, so that they, in turn, can maintain unity among the faithful. We see this responsibility reflected in the name of “pontiff” and even in the pope’s handle on social media — Pontifex — both of which mean “bridge-builder.” There are many ways in which this role may be acted out, but in modern times, we’ve seen the following examples:
Unity through pastoral leadership. Lumen Gentium states that the pope is “pastor of the entire Church” with “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” As such, his role is one of protector, of nurturer and of guide. Each man who has occupied the role has answered the needs of the times — whether standing up to communism, promoting Christian unity or witnessing to world peace.
Unity through being a global leader. Extensive world travel has become a primary way of preserving unity among the faithful, and, as such, the global profile of the papacy has increased. This tradition started in earnest with Blessed Pope Paul VI’s visits to the Holy Land and India in 1964, followed by numerous other international trips. Paul’s travels were then eclipsed several times over during the 26-year pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, who made a stunning 104 trips to 129 countries. This tradition of travel has been continued by Benedict XVI and Francis.
Unity through selflessness. In a shocking turn of events five years ago, Pope Benedict XVI chose to strengthen the Church by renouncing the papacy itself. “In order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Recognizing that his strength had “deteriorated,” Benedict acted with prudence and selflessness, relinquishing power, rather than potentially doing damage by clinging to it.
The responsibilities facing our Holy Father are tremendous. Let us remember to pray for him and for his intentions frequently and with fervor, so that he may be bolstered as he carries on this great work of unifying the Church.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young