We celebrate the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter on this day, commemorating by synecdoche the office of the papacy, instituted by Christ, as recounted in today’s Gospel from the sixteenth chapter of Saint Matthew:
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.”
We should pray for the Holy Father on this day, remembering that the privileges and burdens of the office, the most significant authority that can be wielded on this Earth, weigh heavy even upon the best of men. The Oval Office of the President has nothing on the Chair of Saint Peter, as Stalin’s ironic quip ‘how many divisions has the Pope?’ soon made clear.
Saint Peter himself was a flawed man. Right after his confession, the praise and bestowal of the papacy, Christ in almost His next breath rebukes Peter as ‘Satan’, for tempting Him against the Passion He must undergo, with whatever good and compassionate intentions on the part of the soon-to-be first Pope. The comfy way is not always, not even often, God’s way, as Peter was soon to understand. As Christ later reveals to Peter at the end of Saint John’s Gospel:
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.”
In our day, as I mentioned in my last article on Amoris, we must learn to distinguish, with the wisdom of Christ, even more clearly between the ‘man’ and the ‘Pope’, for the full authority of the papacy, including the divine authority to ‘bind and loose’, is only exercised under certain conditions (cf., The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 25, a very essential paragraph for all Catholics to read), conditions that are not fulfilled in interviews, articles and impromptu replies to reporters’ queries.
The Holy Father says many, shall we say, interesting things, but our faith does not call for blind obedience nor conformity, but the exercise of our reason, to discern what does bind our conscience, and what does not, as we are formed, and form ourselves, with the help of the Magisterium, more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. As Cardinal Newman quipped in a famous address, if he had to toast to the Pope or conscience, he would toast conscience first, for the Pope and his Magisterium are not a replacement for, but rather a support and guide to, our conscience, the ‘aboriginal vicar of Christ’. Yes, there are many truths to which we are bound, but even here, we must choose in freedom and peace, without coercion.
We should pray for wisdom and discernment on the part of the Pope, that he continue to grow in holiness and truth, discerning what is prudent and good, and what is not, and so lead many souls to heaven. At the same time, we should also pray the same for ourselves.