Rorate Caeli

Who is the Pope?
An essay-editorial

Who is the Pope?

Editorial of Polish quarterly 
Christianitas, current issue

The year is 2013. The Catholic Church, governed by the two hundred sixty-fifth successor of St. Peter, our Pope Francis, the one Bishop of Rome.

But not so long ago - we may still measure the time in months, if not in weeks - someone else stood in Francis's place: Benedict XVI. After a pontificate of nearly eight years, he surprised us all with his decision to resign. Not only did he surprise, but provoked everyone to find out the fundamental understanding of who the Pope is and the importance of his particular person in the exercise of his ministry.

So let us enumerate these questions.

First: Who is the Pope? Answer: Jesus Christ's Vicar on earth.

Second: What does it mean to be a Pope? Answer: By being the (next) successor of St. Peter in the Episcopal See of Rome.

In these two questions, a certain mystery of the Catholic faith (briefly, but completely) is outlined: that of the papacy. These are the two issues inseparable from one another: substitution and succession.

Substitution: the Pope does not possess any power in his own name, even in the sense in which formerly anointed kings possessed a "Divine right." Rather, he is powerful in immeasurable divisions- completely different from the power of earthly autocrats - the spiritual power of the Pope in his ruling is unimaginable in secular terms.

In the world today, full of heads of state, is not the Pope a "head"? the head of the Church? The document addressing this particular issue concerning the papacy is Pius XII's Mystici Corporis. Thus, a great effort has been devoted towards accurately describing this truth of the faith: the Church does not have two heads. Her only true Head is Christ in heaven - represented on earth by the Pope, his Vicar.

The Church believes that by this substitution, Jesus empowered Peter. Peter and his successors. Consequentially, among the many bishops - modern day successors to the Apostles, a much larger number than the first twelve disciples of Jesus - only the Pope is the current successor of St. Peter. Therefore, there is always one, and only one, pope. Though, as many know, the Middle Ages occasionally saw Christianity rent by the competing claims of two or even three bishops, all aspiring to this title, successor of Peter. Even so, all the participants of those dramatic conflicts were aware that the true Pope can be only one. And because of that - regardless of his actual location - the Pope is the sole legitimate Bishop of Rome.

One may draw an instructive point from such scandalous strife: the Pope is not necessarily the man with greater understanding, nor is he even the holier man, the Pope is simply the one who legitimately emerges sequentially in the succession to the Apostle Peter.

Throughout the centuries, the logical chain of Catholic doctrine has remained the same: the Roman Pontiff is the successor of Peter, and only Peter was awarded the command of Christ to rule the "sheep and lambs", the whole flock, i.e., the Church in place of his head.

The logic of this argument, of course, does not change the fact that this is a matter of faith, a component of the Catholic creed and therefore something far beyond the sum of human reckoning and the limits of reason. In this issue, the reportage on papal encyclicals, fragments, and documents of Vatican II, certified by historical facts, make it sound credible and there is nothing irrational in this matter, but this is not so. In order to really grasp this, one has to believe that God wants to save people by entering into their history - even to the point of risking the direst consequences by investing a member of humanity with a portion of his own Divine power. One has to believe that a particular person in a specific condition vicariously receives this power, yet receives it in truth. This is the mystery of the Popes and their raison d'être: the papacy is Peter acting in place of Christ on earth.

Therefore, in an image of a pope, what is always the most important is the frame and not the portrait itself. The portrait describes the personal holiness, sinfulness, or vagueness of this Christian who became and was or is the Pope. Yes, let us admit that these aspects- especially holiness - remain a mark on his history as bishop and pope. However, a pope is given form because of the frame, not the features of the portrait. One tries to find among the characteristics of the Pope, not inherent similarities to Peter nor even poignant traits of imitating Christ. Rather, one turns back to the frame: the mission of Peter. Only the framework is truly detachable from the portrait and even continues without it. What is more, it has already served many portraits, but never more than one at a time.

Apart from the frame, almost everything has changed over the centuries - popes of humble character or neurotic character, saints, sinners, hardworking administrators, loud mouths, mystics, and worldly men... The extreme, occasionally scandalous, variety of character was sometimes a challenge to the faith of the Church's members, who became the subject of ridicule for her critics. However, what truly lies beneath the prevailing offenses and disputes can and could always be found thanks to this "frame" surrounding each portrait. This confidence is extraordinary that even the character, Grosglick, (XIXth century Jewish banker in the novel The Promised Land, by Władysław Reymont) expressed his admiration in this statement of "human interest": "The Pope! This is the brand!”

Currently, there are multiple histories and accounts of the papacy and the popes. Some authors are especially impressed by the powerful human diversity in the personalities of the various pontiffs. In these books we find, for example, that one of them was a mystic, and another administrator, etc. There are also books revealing the reaction of the popes to the changes in the world: how one was afraid of what came next, and the other was one of the first great persons to record his voice on phonographs. The former reacting thus due to his conservative nature, and the latter, a modern man.

Among all of these books, as long as they are written from a solid historical standpoint, one may discover things of great interest. However, are they are truly histories of the papacy? Well, maybe the problem is quite elementary. It is not yet clear that the mysteries of faith in general, and the papacy in particular, have a history. History is a record of change, the sequence of changes, and how or what would a mystery of faith change into? Instinctively one just hopes that the mysteries of faith are treated to some degree - at least in the circles of believers - as something immutable and not subject to obsolescence. In the end, the mysteries of faith are woven into the hem of God's truth, and in God there is no variability, denial of self, or stumbling.

Therefore, the truth present in the mysteries of the faith is indeed always the same. But what if, in the changing course of human affairs, the light is reflected from these things and does not penetrate even in the severest turmoil, nor shines among the elements or through them? It seems that then the light must fracture, as it does with a prism. Different from before, it is melted, torn apart by the matter with which has been confused.

To look at it, it's possible to think that the change of course in human affairs is nothing short of alien to the truth. At best, it is an illusion with a constant subject, or at the worst, a way to cut people off from the unchanging truth.

These concerns gave birth to the great philosophical tradition of our civilization - so they are nothing to sneer at. But if we are talking about the mystery of faith in the Christian sense, the opposition of the variable and the invariable, spiritual and corporeal, and true and false is at once lacking.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the story of the incarnate Word of God, who was not only born as a man, but whose mysterious presence among us "grew and waxed strong ","increased in wisdom and in years, and in favor with God and man ".

To be born, to grow, to strengthen oneself: this is a list of changes, but they assume continuity and the identity of a person who actually remains the same, although he has been born, has grown, strengthened, and even learned new things while collecting new experiences. The immutable and eternal Word of God thus entered into human history. He came not as a ray of light in a prism refracting, but in a way suitable to the continuity of life and energy, the fulfillment of everything.

What concerns Christ, the God-Man, in an extraordinary manner applies even more so to the Church, the sacred institution composed of the people. And what concerns the Church also applies to the papacy.

It is with the papacy as it is with the Mass: the same as it was in the beginning and until the end of time, constant in nature and yet how much it owes to history!

Beginning with Peter, the Apostolic papacy was born and shaped by the centuries, yet always to maintain as its the mission the unification of the Church. As always a mystery of faith, it is something that came to the world, but is beyond its power of creation and understanding - the Petrine office has been in the world like a seed that sprouts throughout the centuries of its existence: always the same. That is why it has manifested in such variety in our mutable world.

What's more, throughout its history, one may recognize the outline of grace in the vicissitude of the papacy - sometimes standing in stark contrast to the human weakness of the creatures carrying out Peter's mission.

This office, due to the stages it underwent when the Apostle Peter held it, will always be known as the office of Peter, munus Petrinum. Adam's sin affects all humanity, and the same is true for Peter's papacy: in him were first placed the gifts ordained for all to follow in his lineage.

In a certain sense, all that makes up the papacy is already in Peter. However, what the papacy more strongly evinces (and what is most fundamental to it) is the representation of Christ. The Pope is the "Vicar of Christ", his vicegerent. The pope is the one who acts on earth as Christ, who is in heaven. Yet, he does not serve as Christ in all things, but in the government of the Church, which is all Christians in total as well as each individual. What's more, the injunction ordaining Peter's role as Christ's ambassador was relayed to him in no uncertain terms. Not merely was he instated as the governor of the Church, but in the the place of Christ. He was named the rock, the foundation on which the Church has been built. Hence the well-known adage: Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia (where there is Peter, there is the Church).

And Peter went straight to Rome, the capital of the Empire. Here he implemented his pastoral office, and here he was imprisoned and martyred. However, the office of Peter did not accompany him to heaven.

After the holy Peter came Linus. The latter Pope (briefly mentioned today among several other pontiffs in the Canon of the Roman Missal) was clearly something that Peter could not have effected naturally - his own successor and his own succession. Since then every pope has been the successor of St. Peter. If we were to coin the papal title today, the first successor would have been styled: Linus, Deputy Christ and Successor of Peter.

Do we realize today how great a leap was made in the continuation from Peter to Linus? For the first time, promises and tasks assigned to Peter passed to another man, his successor. In actuality, the office of Peter was separated from the person of Peter.

Peter's heir is not necessarily someone prepossessed with his dignity, e.g., another apostle. As the next in line, St. Linus must have felt this sentiment: "After the great Peter, now comes a lowly worker to the Lord's vineyard." One wonders how often he compared himself with Peter. After all, it was he, and he alone, not St. Peter in heaven, who was then Bishop of Rome, the rock of the Church.

At this stage the inner authority given to Peter by Christ had already unfolded in the essence of the papacy. That is, being a deputy of Christ as the successor of St. Peter, whose See is in Rome. This framework has defined the papacy throughout the centuries to this day.

However, whether it was the Church, the Roman municipality, or the diocese, many discoveries were made, via experience, as to what is truly important and necessary for being Pope. The particular form of Peter was gradually put aside, and this resulted in that mystery of faith - the Petrine office.

After a series of Roman bishops who, like Peter, ended their pontificates with a martyr's death, there came the first time (although it was still the era of persecution!) that a pope, not a martyr but merely a holy man, died in his bed. One might ask whether extremists of that age dismissed him for such negligence. Then there came St. Pontian of the third century, who resigned from office when exiled to labor in the mines, so as to facilitate the selection of his successor.

Yet, there were still more holy popes, one of them being Liberius, of the of the middle of the fourth century, the first and probably the only Bishop of Rome whom heretics 'broke', compelling him to renounce the orthodox faith. Two centuries later, the unbroken line of Pope saints, was interrupted for the first time and the heads of several of St. Peter's successors lack a halo. This was no trifle; these uncanonized popes, such as the vacillating Vigilius of the sixth century, severely affected Roman authority. But the office of Peter remained intact, until once again, at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries, it brought forth popes of high stature, such as Gregory the Great.

No one could have predicted how some popes of the Middle Ages and Renaissance would fall to such ignominious depths. At times, they were completely indistinguishable from secular gourmands, partaking in the pleasures of this world. Then there the wicked schemers, who gave even worse scandal. Nevertheless, these flawed people and poor Christians were also something else: the rightful and irreplaceable custodians of sacred promises, though they rarely put themselves to good use.

Perhaps these popes were insufferable, but it was still necessary to respect them. One could lash the popes with vehement criticism out of sheer love for the papacy! But there were those whom the Popes so greatly offended that they lost faith in the papacy.

There is also a history of the unfolding of the power given to the primates in the Church under Peter. Each bishop stands as Christ to the faithful of his local church, but only the Bishop of Rome is the vicar of Christ for the Church - for all the faithful - wherever he is.

Uncovering all full implications of this gift has been a painful process. There have been popes that were too timid, or otherwise incapacitated. They found it easier not to stand up to opposition and thus avoided accusations of arrogance and lust for power. Then there have been bolder popes who took their imperious natures to the extreme, giving credence to the aforementioned accusations. And yet, there are evangelical reasons for ensuring the unity of the Church. From this necessity came popes like Victor I, Damasus, and Gregory the Great , who demanded obedience from other bishops, but not for the purpose of interfering with the affairs of other patriarchates and dioceses.

As time has passed, the popes have been so provoked by various crises and inter-Church disputes that one is led to say that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is so far from merely being an honor or even a pragmatic solution for cases when one must judge. The papal primacy is the visible principle of the Church's unity, bestowed on the successor of Peter, by God. The privilege of the Holy See.

The implications for the "servant of the servants of God" (as Gregory the Great called himself) is that he must be "sweet Christ on earth" (as said St. Catherine of Siena of the fourteenth century, though she saw at the struggles between popes and anti-popes). This is described in more detail in the dogma of the primacy of Peter, proclaimed by the first Vatican Council in 1870.

Unfolding the unchanging truth concerning Peter's authority as the Bishop of Rome introduced a conflict with those who had already taken the position intended for that primacy or otherwise treated it as dispossessed. It was easy to respect Rome when it was the political capital of the Empire, but it was harder to recognize the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome when the political capital of the Empire was Byzantium. But the vicar of Christ does not owe his position to residence in the capital of the Emperor. He possesses it as the successor of Peter.

It is impossible here for us to follow all the paths that Peter has taken; especially, as we can trace his successors up to the present day. Throughout various epochs, fidelity did not so much require repetition of the same acts, gestures, or teachings from the Petrine office, but to maintain the same principles and harmony. Popes were persecuted by pagan emperors. Popes were placed under the guardianship of Christian ones. Popes even sought protection from the "barbarian" rulers who were competing with the civilized world. In the end, popes might either crown the rulers of Christian empires, or teach on the fundamental rights of a democracy. In all these diverse situations, the same freedom was at stake: that of the Church to proclaim the Gospel.

Catholics still believe, without alteration, that the papacy is the receptive instrument of the Holy Spirit. We hold it strongly, because we accept it as God's truth. Yet, the same faith may inspire different interpretations. I once imagined the pope's person mysteriously glowing while he conversed with Holy Spirit, who hovered visibly over him in the form of a dove. Nowadays, other images are preferred - certainly less striking than the older ones, yet just as full of feeling. Imagination doesn't have the power to delineate faith.

And so, throughout papal history, there constantly arise historical firsts. And so it has happened again--the Church has required the Petrine office.

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the decision was quickly presented as "unprecedented". Moreover, the attempt was made to present this decision as a breakthrough in a centuries-old understanding of the papacy. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, conceived of it as a consequence of the difference between a portrait (the pope) and a frame (the papacy).

In his statement of resignation, one reads no distinction of mission and the person carrying it out. In assessing the situation, one may deduce that he was following the biblical command not to be 'a respecter of persons.' From this short but succinct justification, we have learned well enough to recognize the pope's personal inability to fulfill the mission of Peter.

In what might have been the wiser comments to read, Benedict's resignation shifted the attention from the person occupying the office to the office itself. The question is whether we took advantage of this unique opportunity to better understand and accept the mystery of the papacy.

Confusing people with their duties, personality, and institutions is one of the most prevalent tendencies of our time. It wasn't for nothing that Gustave Thibon, one of the most perceptive observers of modernity in the 1940's, complained in his work, Diagnostics, that those Catholics who placed their faith in the authority of the pope rendered a childish worship unto him. Thibon opined that this was but one symptom of a disease, "Currently, institutions tolerate no other method than that of one popular person, whereas a set down framework is considered to be abstract or dead." In spite of this appraisal, the sage still contends against our "personalistic" biased era that "that which is not a person may yet be vibrant and even concrete. A solid framework, which men may guard or transgress may also be loved, and with such warmth!" One has but to examine more closely. "In the end, the very person of God underlies these systems - He alone whom one can worship without harm - and who protects all living things...'

Thibon wrote about this "kind of childlike worship of the Pope's person" during the pontificate of Pius XII, one of the greatest and holiest pontiffs of the modern era. After centuries of drought, several especially holy popes had appeared and had recently (at the time of the nineteenth century) Pope Pius XII canonized Pius V, of the sixteenth century, and beatified Innocent XI in the seventeenth century. There was Bl. Pius IX, then later St. Pius X, and then subsequently, those whom the Church recognizes today as "servants of God", and now Bl. John Paul II. The ancient framework St. Peter's mission remains his own great and continual succession, and in this age, Church leaders are bound in an unprecedented confrontation with a mass of secular ideologies. Indeed, "childish personality cult of the Pope" has nothing to feed itself, nor ground to take root in.

Has such adulation of the popes' persons strengthened or weakened the true core of the papacy. Is the Catholic cult of the papacy opposed to the structure instituted by God? Distinguishing between the two seems like hair-splitting to many. Some think that erecting monuments to popes constitutes good Catholic work.

There were more and more portraits bare of frame and rapturous - popes who were not supported so much for love of the papacy or the Church. Rather, one sees particular popes whose personal power has built up the position of the papacy. Though there may be general praise and acceptance of a pope, this does not necessarily arise from the official teachings and acts of St. Peter's authority. They are often merely be due to personal holiness, intriguing pastimes, or even just good looks. Sometimes it is even due to strictly personal affection and taste, such as John Paul II's fondness for cream cakes.

However, a warm aspect is not everything. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the rising modern temptation of Popes to think of their personal power in absolutist terms. What is more interesting, the apogee of absolutism arose at the moment when the Second Vatican Council was convened. Here, the Pope acted not so much as a servant of tradition, but as a great designer of new and improved tools of evangelization. Paradoxically, it was not in the era of Trent nor even under the reign of Pius IX era, but in the time immediately following the Council that the faithful approached this belief that - apart from absolute exceptions - "The Pope can do anything."

But he cannot. One of the most distinct signs of spiritual power - which is the sovereign power of the Popes - is the tenet of non possumus, "we cannot." We cannot, because we do not have such authority! Since, as mentioned at the beginning, the Pope is a deputy, not the head. He is the guardian of the deposit of faith, not its creator.

This fact was realized when Pope John Paul II, in spite of demands to admit woman to the priesthood, answered no. "We cannot, because we do not have such authority." The then Cardinal Ratzinger observed with a smile that supporters of a female priesthood and other such changes apparently believed in the omnipotence of the Pope. However, the Pope does not believe in his own omnipotence.

The gesture of Benedict XVI (although his decision was made simply and primarily for the benefit of the Church and prompted by personal humility) has become yet another lesson in the "impotence" of the individual, even one as powerful as the Pope. All know very well that popes get sick and die. Now it is seen with full clarity that their vital mission is distinguished from their persons.

Taking advantage of this lesson, Thibon again observes that "eyes and heart only see the individual", whose shoulders may well "shed the weight of the institutions that rise and fall with them. " This is the requirement increasingly demanded of popes. People observe with anger and disappointment, that the pontiffs do not meet the requirements to oversee God's own institution.

Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinals - of course acting in accordance with his will - elected a new Pope, for life, possessing complete freedom to discern the conditions in which to carry out Peter's mission. While discerning the pope's successor, the conclave in effect gives birth to the new pontiff. It is set on a more or less dramatic stage, the birth pangs of the whole Church: the chosen one has already been conceived, put into the frame of the papacy, following a line of over two hundred predecessors, every one of whom was his own man Inside the frame standing before us is not Cardinal Bergoglio, but Pope Francis.

[Source, in Polish, provided by editors; penned by P. Milcarek; translated for Rorate by R. Muracka.]