The recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI provoked a floodgate of reactions, some enlightened some others not at all enlightening. Weavers of conspiracy theories have been on the prowl. For some, he is retiring because of a scandal or some scandals, recent scandals. For some others, he is being forced to resign by “Vatican insiders” who are resistant to reform. There are predictions as to who will succeed him. There are even reports of attempts to influence the process of electing a new Pope. These can go on. Many media outlets would have to close shop without those screaming but empty headlines. And many journalists would be out of jobs.
But this is no time to mystify, mythologise or complicate a simple fact. And that fact is: Benedict XVI wisely sees himself at too old and too weak for the job. Consider that he was 78 years old when he was elected Pope in 2005. His immediate predecessor, John Paul II, was 58 years old when he was elected Pope in 1978. So, Benedict XVI was twenty years older than his immediate predecessor was when he became Pope. Compare that to Paul VI who was 67 years old when he became Pope in 1963.
Consider too that Pope John XXIII was elected at the age of 78 and died at the age of 83. Pope Paul VI, his immediate successor, died at the age of 82. Pope John Paul I, the smiling Pope who succeeded him at 66, died thirty three days after he became Pope. Pope John Paul II died at 85 but his infirmity began much earlier. Benedict XVI will be 86 in April. Seeing him at the Synod on New Evangelisation last October, there were clear and evident signs of age related infirmity. His interventions were still lucid, his reflections profound, his homilies inspiring, but his body weak. He could not attend all the sessions. He had to be wheeled through the aisle, his frame supported by assistants to climb the altar steps. It is therefore understandable that he would consider leaving the office for a fitter successor.
At times such as these, misleading headlines and uninformed commentaries provide an opportunity to do away with misconceptions so as come to a better understanding of the place of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. We must begin by saying that the ministry of the Bishop of Rome is to be understood within the entire body of bishops. For the Pope is not a bishop above the body of bishops but a bishop within the body of bishops.
The Pope is a bishop, and a bishop is a servant. A servant places himself at the service of the one he serves. The Pope, as bishop, places himself at the service of God and at the service of the people of God. A servant is not greater than his master. The Pope, as bishop, is not greater than the Church confided to his care. Even as Supreme Pontiff, even as universal Pastor, he is servant of the Church because he is a Bishop. The Church existed before every Bishop, every Pope, and will continue to be after him.
But if the Pope is a bishop, what then do we make of papal primacy? Is not the Pope diminished by this repeated insistence on his being a bishop?
The dignity of the sedens (the one who occupies an episcopal seat, the one who oversees the Church) flows from the sedes (the episcopal seat, the Church he oversees). The dignity of the Bishop flows from the dignity of the Church. This is clearly depicted in a gesture that takes place once, and only once, in the life of a diocese, that is, when a new diocese is being inaugurated and its first bishop is to be ordained and or installed. After the Gospel is proclaimed, the decree of erection of the Diocese is read before the Rite of Ordination and or Installation of its first Bishop takes place. For there is no Bishop without a Church. The seat to which the newly ordained and or newly installed Bishop is led, the cathedra, symbolizes the place where the teaching of the apostles will continue to be preached, an apostolic teaching that predates and outlasts the Bishop in the same way that the Church predates and outlasts him. The teaching of the apostles is the Gospel. The Bishop preaches from this seat by presiding as the one who serves.
Since the dignity of a Bishop flows from the dignity of the Church, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is the primacy of the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome is the first of the Churches, which is not to say it is the Mother of the Churches. Such a title—“Mother of the Churches”—would rightly belong to the Church in Jerusalem, the Church at Pentecost, described in Acts 2. The primatial rank of the Church of Rome comes from the fact that it was the place of martyrdom, that is, of the supreme apostolic witness of Saints Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles, whose tombs it keeps. The martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome confers on that Church the status and seal of the most authentic and most powerful apostolic testimony that the crucified and risen Christ is the Saviour of the world. The Bishop of Rome is the one who presides as servant in the communion of all the Churches around the teaching of the apostles and the Eucharist.
The idea of one who presides as servant is quite strange in a world where power addiction is common. That largely explains why it is strange, even shocking, to hear of a Pope renouncing the Petrine seat. And the reaction of many can be explained by the shock of Simon Peter, the one whose successor the Bishop of Rome is, when he resisted having his feet washed by his Master (cf. Jn 13:1-15).
In the complex history of the papacy, the Church has sometimes felt the stench of corruption from the See of Peter, and sometimes felt the sustaining power of those weighty words of our Lord to Peter: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it” (Mt 16:18). He did not just say, “the gates of the underworld cannot overpower” the Church, but that the same gates “can never” overpower it. There have been saintly occupiers of the See of Peter just as there have been those whose lives were anything but saintly. There were times the papacy was used as tool in the hands of personalities addicted to power, monarchs and clerics who used, one should say abused the office, for political and economic gains. But the power in the words of Christ has not waned. The promise he made to Peter in Caesarea Philippi continues to hold despite the human frailty of those who occupy the Chair of Peter.
But we in modern times have been blessed with holy Popes. I have known, in my life time, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I and Paul VI. I was born during the reign of John XXIII. Reading about him, or reading about his predecessor, Pius XII, reading the writings and studying the gestures of the Popes who have reigned after him help to reinforce the conviction that the Church in recent decades has experienced the fulfilment of the promise, “the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.” As for Pope Benedict XVI, his life and writings before and during his pontificate boldly underline and confirm that the promise has not been withdrawn.
Fr Anthony Akinwale, OP