The passing of Pope John Paul II into eternal life and the election of Pope Benedict XVI has focused the attention of the Church and the world on the role of the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor to Saint Peter.
Even as we mourned the death of Pope John Paul, we celebrated a pontificate that spanned nearly 27 years. We reflected on the splendid gifts of nature and grace that enabled this great pontiff to shepherd the Church throughout the world, to preach the mystery of Christ in its fullness, and to touch the lives of untold millions, especially the young, with the truth and love of the Triune God.
The world-wide outpouring of love at the pope's death was a powerful testament to this. We loved him not only because of his talents and personality, but indeed because he had so much integrity that he shared with us the saving truth revealed by Christ, a truth and love that restores and brings to light our authentic dignity as persons and as members of the Church. He is called "John Paul the Great" not only because he helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe, but also because he preached the liberating truth of Christ with courage, strength, consistency, and love, even to those who sought illusory liberation through godless materialism or other ideologies. He connected with us not because he always said what we wanted to hear, but because he said what we needed to hear.
John Paul II was, for each of us, a powerfully clear reflection of the Good Shepherd, and we continue to rely on his prayers from his place in eternity.
The passing of John Paul II then gave way to the drama of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. On the day of his election, I happened to be in Burlington, Vermont, for the episcopal ordination of Bishop Salvatore Matano, now the Coadjutor Bishop of Burlington. Bishop Matano's family, and friends, together with about 30 bishops, were having lunch prior to the ordination when word began to spread through the dining room that white smoke had been seen in Rome. Every cell phone in the place was instantly activated! Some 45 minutes later, we learned that that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected and had chosen the name "Benedict."
Most of us bishops had met the new Holy Father, and all of us had a deep appreciation for his previous service to the Church. We already knew him as a theologian who contributed greatly to the Second Vatican Council and as the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We commented on the many ways he had supported us in our role as teachers of the faith, and how unfailingly gracious he was whenever he conducted meetings or met with us privately. We understood the importance of the continuity with the pontificate of John Paul II that Pope Benedict's election signaled; but we also understood that Benedict XVI brings to the papacy his own wonderful gifts: gifts of language and culture, global experience, and a mind that is both subtle and deep, philosophically and theologically. Even as he fulfilled a truly difficult role in the Holy See for the Church universal, he continued to engage in theological research and writing. His theological "output" is truly amazing. And his serenity and patience never seemed to desert him in the midst of vexing responsibilities. The joy we felt was palpable!
Inevitably, some of the commentary in the media, while mainly positive, was wide of the mark. Unless reporters and commentators had taken the time to become familiar with the thought and teaching of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, they might easily resort to ideological labels such as "conservative" or "hard-liner."
But thinking people know that labels and slogans are no substitute for genuine understanding and dialogue. Those in the public eye also know how readily the 24-hour news cycle paints onedimensional pictures of people engaged in complex and controversial tasks. But even some theologians, who knew or should have known how profoundly the pontificate of John Paul II contributed to the development of the Church's doctrinal self-understanding, nonetheless persisted in using labels that are more suited for political and ideological battles than for questions pertaining to faith and discipleship.
We need to think in terms of the truth and love of the Trinity revealed by Christ and shared with us in the Church - not in terms of conveniently labeled factions. As Francis Cardinal George of Chicago famously commented, "the teaching of the Church is neither conservative or liberal. It just happens to be true!"
Not surprisingly, some of the commentary also misunderstood the nature of Church teaching as well as the nature of the ministry which the Holy Father is called to exercise. I don't say this to lay blame, but rather to stress that we, who are baptized Catholics, need to have an accurate understanding of these things so that we may defend our faith and help others comprehend what the Church is really all about. This is an essential part of evangelization in today's world.
For some, Church teaching is thought to be akin to public policy that popes and bishops can change, if only they would will to do so. Given that erroneous understanding, it wasn't surprising to find camera crews outside of parish churches asking people if they hoped the new pope would prove to be more "flexible" by changing Church teaching and practice to be more in tune with popular opinion. Reporters most often asked about teachings that pertain to personal morality, implying by their questions that such teachings are merely external constraints on one's freedom rather than a path to liberation from the slavery of sin. Parishioners were also asked about the Church's teaching and discipline regarding priestly ordination, and whether Jesus should be considered the universal Savior or simply one among other major religious figures.
But the Church's teaching is not a private possession to be handled according to the preferences of anyone in or outside the Church! That teaching is not reducible to mere policies that come and go according to the whim of a pope, a bishop, a priest, a religious, a professor, or an ordinary believer.
Nor is the Church a parliament that decides what its members are to believe and how its members are to interact and live.
Rather, the Church is a divinely constituted assembly of believers in whose lives Christ continues to intervene by Word and Sacrament. What we believe and how we are to live flow from the identity and teaching of Jesus Christ and from His saving works. All this is stored in the living memory of the Church and is truly made present and active in our lives through preaching and teaching, sacramental worship, and the guidance of her pastors, beginning with the Twelve Apostles whom Christ called, appointed, and sent into the world.
Through the centuries, the Church's teaching continues to develop as the Church spreads throughout the world, encounters new cultures, and faces new questions. But it develops, not by denying itself, nor by veering to the right or the left, but rather by probing ever more profoundly the coherence, truth, beauty, and goodness of what Christ has revealed to us through the Scriptures and the living Tradition of the Church, handed on from apostolic times. In other words, the Church's teaching proceeds by way of assent rather than dissent; some theological opinions contribute to the process of authentic doctrinal development, others do not.
And in our 2,000-year Tradition, the contours of discipleship have remained remarkably consistent. Truly prophetic voices within the Tradition do not call us to weaken our response of love to Christ's saving work by redefining the Church's teaching on faith and morals to suit our personal tastes, nor do they absolve troubled consciences from inconvenient teachings. It is not the teaching that needs to change but rather ourselves!
The Holy Father is called the Vicar of Christ on earth. As such, he is not an overlord who controls the content and form of the Church's teaching and worship, but rather a servant who represents Christ, the one Teacher and Savior. The Holy Father's ministry to the universal Church and his teaching are not his own. Both must clearly reflect what Christ said of his own heavenly Father: "My teaching is not Mine, it is His who sent Me" (John 7:16). Since the pope, as the successor to Saint Peter, guards and bears witness to the truth revealed by Christ, he is the focal point of unity for the Church throughout the world and, at the same time, a reliable partner in world-wide ecumenical dialogue.
The shifting sands of private opinion cannot make those claims. Nor can merely private views be relied on to provide for people of every time and place the reconciling love of Christ.
The Lord entrusted His reconciling love to Peter, the first among the apostles, when he gave him the power to bind and loose. That reconciling love is at the heart of the Church. It is the source of our unity and the cause of our holiness. None of us can ultimately become holy without unity - union with Christ who reveals the Triune God, and unity with one another in Christ's Body, which professes "one Lord, one faith, one baptism."
We look to the Holy Father as our universal pastor, our shepherd. We rely on him to confirm the one faith professed in every local or particular church (diocese), scattered throughout the world. We look to him to support the worldwide mission of the Church to proclaim the name of Christ to the nations and reinvigorate the faith in places where it has grown cold. We depend on him not only to protect the Church from danger, but also to unify and strengthen the Church as she continues her missionary labors in the Third Christian Millennium.
I ask your prayers for Pope Benedict XVI in these opening days of his ministry as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Saint Peter. His burdens are tremendous. May the graces he receives be greater! And may his ministry bear the abundant fruit of holiness in us, as members of the Church Universal present and active here in Fairfield County
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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