Friday, February 22, 2013

The Chair of Peter

The papacy is very much in the news these days, as the world awaits the end of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy on February 28 and the subsequent election of a new pope. Some of the news coverage so far has been quite good - intelligent assessments of Benedict XVI's accomplishments, historical context concerning papal resignations, information about how the Church prepares to select a new Pope, and intelligent speculation  about the conclave's outcome. Of course, some of the coverage has also been characterized by incredible ignorance of basic facts about the Church and the papacy and/or by secular political prejudices, which are allowed to define a discussion about something above and beyond the categories of contemporary secular politics. Still, while much of the coverage is ignorant and narrowly politicized, it has highlighted the unique character and importance of the papal office and of the person of the Pope, whom the media may sometimes reduce to a celebrity, but who is ultimately so much more.  

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the annual liturgical celebration of the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome. The primacy of the Pope unites the entire Church across space and time. Across space, the Pope is the center through communion with whom all bishops and the local churches they pastor throughout the world are united in one community of faith, hope, and love. Through time, the Pope is the Church's link back to Peter, who in the gospels publicly professed the faith of the entire Church and was appointed by Christ as both the Church's chief fisherman (evangelizer) and the Church's chief shepherd (pastor). In the modern world, the Pope is uniquely the Church's very visible face and audible voice speaking truth to the powers of this world. Internally and externally, therefore, the Pope is "a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and of communion" (Collect, Votive Mass "For the Pope").

Last year, I had the opportunity to celebrate this feast in Rome itself, assisting at the Papal Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on the occasion of consistory for the creation of new cardinals. My good friend (and former boss in New York) and I were among the priests privileged to occupy a place at the foot of the papal Altar of the Confession - just a few yards away from the Pope himself - and then to distribute Holy Communion to the throng filling the basilica. It was an awesome celebration of the universality of the Church and one of the genuine high points of my study-time in Rome.

This year, both the Pope and I are celebrating the feast more modestly. Indeed the Pope is on retreat - the lenten spiritual exercises of the Roman Curia, that annually occur in the first full week of Lent.

Long before assuming the papal office, Pope Benedict had made his mark as one of the great theological thinkers and teachers of our time. As pope, he has continued to exercise the ministry of teacher in an incomparably profound and pastorally relevant way. He has also, from the beginning, approached his high office with great personal humility and visible devotion to the Church, an invaluable model for all of us who exercise offices in the Church. That humility and devotion to the Church have been especially evident in the Pope’s decision to resign the papal office and devote himself to prayer and study. He'll be 86 in April, and - to his great credit - recognizes the impact of age and ill health on his ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today's "24/7," constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy.  (I'll be 65 next month, and I would certainly find it a challenge to met those ever increasing public expectations - expectations the likes of which were simply not present for previous popes, as recently as Pius XII and John XXIII.)

On this feast, when we annually celebrate Christ's great gift to the Church of the ministry of Peter, prolonged throughout the Church's life in the primacy of the Pope, we fittingly give thanks for the pontificate of Benedict XVI and look forward to the election of a successor to guide and govern the Church  as it confronts the challenges of the new evangelization.

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