“There is the presence of the Holy Spirit, the essence of the new law according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. However, this presence does not exclude, but rather demands on the ministerial level the visible, the institutional, the hierarchical. The whole New Testament, preserved and preached by the Church, is a function of grace, of the kingdom of heaven. The Petrine ministry is situated in this perspective.”

Peter strengthens his brothers in faith
Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 2 December 1992

Moving from yesterday’s post on the first of ten General Audience talks by Pope Saint John Paul II on the institution of the papacy, in his second address on the subject, John Paul taught about the role of the pope in strengthening the faithful. This teaching is scriptural in origin. In many ways, Peter serves as an example of how the humanity (and struggles) of each pope is integral to this vital aspect of the papacy. Of Peter, he recalls,

“Peter was not preserved from his denial, but after experiencing his own weakness, he was strengthened in faith by virtue of Jesus’ prayer so that he could fulfill the mission of strengthening his brothers. This mission cannot be explained on the basis of purely human considerations. The Apostle Peter, the only one to deny his Master–three times!–was always Jesus’ chosen one, charged with strengthening his companions. The human pretensions to fidelity that Peter professed failed, but grace triumphed. The experience of falling enabled Peter to learn that he could not put his trust in his own strength or any other human factor, but only in Christ. It also enables us to see Peter’s mission and power in light of the grace of election. What Jesus promised and entrusted to him comes from heaven and belongs–must belong–to the kingdom of heaven.

Every pope, from Peter to Francis, has his flaws. Popes are sinners. They are human. The four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles do not shy away from describing situations when Peter failed: his stubbornness, his denials, his hypocrisy. And yet, despite his human failures, what Christ “promised and entrusted to him comes from heaven.”

Many of Pope Francis’s critics argue that his supporters envision the papacy as “magical,” as if the pope ruled by divine fiat and had superhuman power over doctrine and Truth. In reality, that is not how we understand the papacy at all (at least none of the contributors for this website). The teaching of the Church that so many of Francis’s critics refuse to confront is that when there are doctrinal questions facing the Church on matters of truth, the Supreme Pontiff is the only person (along with the bishops who teach in communion with him) who is entrusted with the authority to provide an authentic interpretation of the Word of God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#100) says this explicitly:

“The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.”

For this reason, I would argue that it is absurdity when those who pride themselves on their Catholic orthodoxy to pit the teachings of the pope against sacred scripture. We’ve seen this done numerous times, for example in critiques of Amoris Laetitia and the revision to the official Church teaching on the death penalty.

Perhaps one of the things that bothers Francis’s critics is that in this era of social media and instant global communication, the humanity of the pope is now on full display. Before the advent of television, normal Catholics were unable to develop an impression of the pope as a person. For many Catholics, their understanding of the pope came from how he was depicted in pictures and portraits: as a solemn old man, seated on a throne, with a crown on his head. His statements were highly formal, utilizing the royal “we” rather than the pronoun “I.” But we must realize that every single one of Francis’s predecessors was a man, with unique gifts and weaknesses, his own personality, and assistants to help him maintain his regal image.

With more recent popes and more modern communications, we began to understand the popes as men. Even then, our access to their interior lives was limited. One might recall the various quips and anecdotes that are repeated about the good-humored Pope Saint John XXIII. We occasionally hear rumors or see transcripts about the inner workings of the papacy of Saint Paul VI and the challenges he faced. Even then, such glimpses were far from complete. It’s incredible to imagine that Pope John Paul I was nicknamed “the Smiling Pope,” as if it was a novel concept.

In many ways, Pope Benedict (and to a certain extent, John Paul II) worked to cultivate an image of the pope as someone who always spoke with precision, acted deliberately, and adhered to all the formal trappings of the office. With Pope Francis and the age of social media, all that went out the window. During this papacy, we’ve caught quips, hyperbolic statements, sideways glances, grimaces, funny faces, coughs and sneezes, angry reactions, and even a slap. We can see when he’s fatigued, we can see when he limps, we see him work a crowd. These things are not unique to popes, but we have never experienced them in this way before.

What we see is the humanity of Pope Francis on display. And as an extroverted person with his own approach and his own way of going about doing things and speaking, he opens himself up to criticism from those who are looking for things to criticize. In addition, his emphasis on dialogue and listening and discussion and openness gives us a glimpse into “how the sausage is made” that we may not have seen in such detail since Saint Peter’s humanity and flaws were written down in the New Testament.

This is a positive development, in my opinion. This isn’t to say that in the past there were serious or ugly battles within the hierarchy, but somehow these stories become sanitized when they are written down in the history books. John Paul reminds us of how the mission of Peter and his successors is exercised in trial. Significant papal decisions and developments in doctrine usually took place in great struggles and contentious debates in the Church:

“Peter’s service to the kingdom consists primarily in strengthening his brothers, in helping them to keep the faith and develop it. It is interesting to point out that this mission is to be exercised in trial. Jesus was well aware of the difficulties in the historical phase of the Church, called to follow the way of the cross that he took. Peter’s role, as head of the apostles, would be to support his ‘brothers’ and the whole Church in faith. Since faith is not maintained without struggle, Peter must help the faithful in their struggle to overcome whatever would take away or lessen their faith.”

In order for the Successor of Peter to help us in our struggles to overcome a difficulty with our faith (or a hard teaching, or with understanding a decision of the Church), we must be open to what he has to say to us. Pope Francis understands that those who oppose his teachings are struggling, and are in pain. But he also has a strong sense of his mission, and he cannot compromise on the truth. As reported by Reuters Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella in an interview in May of last year,

Francis was also asked about a group of ultra-conservatives who earlier this month began a signature campaign urging bishops to denounce him as a heretic over a range of topics from communion for the divorced to religious diversity.

Francis said he did not feel hurt and took it “with a sense of humor,” adding, “I pray for them because they are wrong, and, poor people, some of them are being manipulated.”

Pope Francis has a strong understanding of himself and the mission that has been entrusted to him as the Bishop of Rome. Thanks to the marvels of modern communication, we are able to have a strong understanding of him as a human being. But even though we know much about him as a man, that doesn’t detract from who he is and his role as pope.


Image: By Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15417264

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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