Summary: There are all kinds of examples, great ones and poor ones, among the popes.
Feast of the Chair of St. Peter 2018
Today’s Catholic feast celebrates the “chair” or authority given by Christ to St. Peter and his successors, one that has its foundations in the Old Testament. We see St. Peter as the vicar, or maybe viceroy or even “chief of staff” of Jesus Christ on earth. St Peter, in this letter we heard excerpts from, himself tells us the rules the popes must follow: “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” We can see examples of this kind of leadership and service in popes who have lived in the last hundred years, ones we call “saints.” They were Pius X, our patron, John XXIII and John Paul II. If they had an “agenda” it was clearly the agenda of the Holy Spirit, and an enthusiasm for extending the reign of Christ to all the nations.
Lamentably, in the late middle ages there were few saintly popes, and several who had agendas that seem to be the opposite from what St. Peter commanded. They were unarguably looking out for shameful gain, giving bad example, and domineering over those they were supposed to serve. More than anything, they were proximate causes of the Protestant revolution. But let’s look first at the Scriptures to see what Christ is saying.
The scene is Caesarea Philippi, a pagan shrine in north Israel right at the base of the huge rock we call Mount Hermon. At that place the pagan shrine was built over a huge sinkhole that was so deep it was called the “gates of Hades.” Because of the way pious Jews wrote and spoke in the first century, we can infer that the full text of St. Peter’s testimony to Christ was something like: “Thou art the Messiah, the Son of God, Blessed is He.” And Christ then replies “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, thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades 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.” This is the kind of language that the King of Israel would use to establish the authority of his prime minister. From this and a related passage in John’s Gospel, the Church rightly derives the authority of Peter’s successor, the bishop of Rome.
This brings us to Luther’s pilgrimage to Rome, undertaken for his religious community in 1510. They were appealing for a special favor to the Pope. Remember that he entered the Augustinians in 1505 and was ordained just two years later. So he was only three years a priest, one who really did not have a vocation to consecrated life, who looked on God the Father as a tyrant, much like his own father. The experience in Rome was awful. It was hot, Rome itself was a dump with polluted water, and the priests he encountered were saying Masses for the dead one after another to collect the stipends, perhaps six or seven at a time. He developed a lifelong loathing for all things Italian. And the pope for the next three years was Julius II, the warrior pope, whose primary concern was restoring his political dominion over central Italy. So besides the bad personal experience, Luther and his companion failed in their primary mission. Talk about a terrible aftertaste of papal stewardship.
Thus, seven years later, Luther published his ninety-five theses and went on to foment revolution. He later wrote about the papacy in his commentary on Matthew chapter 16: “they have perverted all quotations of Scripture about obedience and disobedience. By such insolent interpretations of Christ’s word the whole world has been frightened and bullied until everybody has been cornered and made the victim of human doctrine.” This passage in Matthew is troublesome for someone who wants a Church devoid of its central steward. So Luther, and pretty much all of Protestantism, ignore the true meaning of the Greek and Hebrew-Aramaic underlying it to claim that either Christ, or faith, or something else is the “Rock” spoken of here. We can certainly understand Luther’s visceral revulsion at the terrible state of the papacy in 1510, but his response was to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Today, when there seems to be some confusion about where Pope Francis seems to be leading the Church, let’s spend time praying that the wisdom of God, manifest in the original Peter, flawed though he was, be present to the churches and separated brethren in every possible way.