For years, I thought the pope was the antichrist. More accurately, I was told he was the antichrist and never actually looked into the matter myself. Looking back though, it’s funny that I even entertained the thought. After all, the papacy is an office–a title–held by many men for close to two thousand years. Isn’t the antichrist supposed to be an individual? So to say that “the pope” is the antichrist, one must be a little more specific, but we all know what happens when folks start predicting biblical “mysteries” like the end times and the antichrist…
So all jokes aside, who is the pope? According to the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, the pope is:
“The successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the universal Catholic Church. The pope exercises a primacy of authority as Vicar of Christ and shepherd of the whole Church; he receives the divine assistance promised by Christ to the Church when he defines infallibly a doctrine of faith or morals.“
Phew, that’s some strong language in there. “Supreme Pontiff”, “primacy of authority”, “infallibility”? Just who does this dude in funny-looking robes think he is?
Turns out, the more important question is, who does Jesus think he is? First, let’s take a biblical road trip to the gospel of Matthew 16:18-19.
“And I tell you that you are Peter,and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadeswill not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.”
The Greek word for “rock” is petros, which is how we get the name Peter today. For a more in depth analysis of the lingual acrobatics, this article came in handy.
Notice how Jesus refers to the future with Peter and his station as the “rock.” Jesus says that Peter is the rock on which he will build his Church. If the Church is in fact the body of Christ, and the Great Commission by Christ is to spread the gospel, then the construction of his Church is an active, on-going process. Such an enormous project needs a good foundation, one that can sustain the weight and complexity of such a body. Jesus thought Peter was that solid foundation.
Remember Christ’s parable about building a house on the rock and on the sand (Matthew 7: 24-27)? Perhaps Jesus was giving us more to chew on than we thought.
A spiritual lineage of popes, beginning with St. Peter, has led the Church in an unbroken line for nearly 2,000 years. Indeed, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who converted and baptized St. Augustine, once said:
“Where Peter is, there is the church.“
If there was not a tradition of apostolic spiritual lineage by this point, why would Bishop Ambrose use such language? The pope then is a man who occupies the office once held by Peter.
Our current pope is Pope Benedict XVI.
The pope is the spiritual leader and servant of over 1 billion people all over the globe. His is a life of complete and utter service to the “flock” Jesus himself told Peter to feed (John 21: 15-17). He is servus servorum Dei “servant of the servants of God,” a title first used by Pope St. Gregory. A new pope is chosen from among his peers, the College of Cardinals, although technically, any unmarried Catholic male may hold the burden of the papacy.
Infallibility of the pope does not derive from the individual’s character or personal power, but in the office itself as led and influenced by Christ and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, any honest Catholic will tell you that the Church has hosted dubious and controversial popes in the past. In fact, it was most probably the mistreatment and corruption of the papal office and the associated leadership of bishops and priests that led to the Protestant Reformation. The reunion of the Church is a constant prayer of the Catholic Church to this day.
“Like human life itself, freedom draws its meaning from love. Indeed, who is the freest? Someone who selfishly keeps all possibilities open for fear of losing them, or someone who expends himself ‘firmly resolved’ to serve and thereby finds himself full of life because of the love he has given and received?” –Pope Benedict XVI
The very life of a pope–down to his various garments (vestments)–are symbolic in myriad ways to his service to Christ and the Church. In a way, the pope is akin to the Greek titan Atlas, the one called to hold the world on his shoulders. In the case of the pope, it is the Church which built upon the “rock” Jesus appointed.
What are your thoughts on the papacy? If you’re Catholic, do you have a favorite pope?