Today we have two anniversaries on the same day. The events did not originally happen on the same day—they happened two weeks apart.
I am talking about four springs ago. Easter Saturday night, Pope John Paul II breathed his last.
During his pontificate of 26 ½ years, he had visited some forty countries of the earth. Each time, he came back to Rome. But on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday he set off for the heavenly country, never to return.
I don’t know about you, but it was one of the saddest days of my life. We all knew the day would come. But John Paul II was the Holy Father, the only Pope many of us could remember. I still miss him.
Nonetheless, God always provides. Two weeks passed. The Cardinals came from all over the world to Rome. John Paul II was buried a few feet away from St. Peter. Then the Conclave began in the Sistine Chapel…
The next day white smoke billowed and bells rang. The Lord had used the Cardinals to choose a new Holy Father: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI on April 19.
So today seems like a good time to try to answer this question: Why do we have a Pope?
The Lord Jesus established the Papacy. He said to Simon the fisherman, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
On his own anniversary of election to the See of Peter, Pope St. Leo the Great explained the ministry of the Bishop of Rome:
Saint Peter does not cease to preside over his See, and preserves an endless sharing with [Christ] the Sovereign Priest. The firmness that [St. Peter] received from the Rock which is Christ, he himself, having become the Rock, transmits it equally to his successors, too; and wherever there appears a certain firmness, there is manifested without doubt the strength of the Pastor…Thus there is, in full vigor and life, in the Prince of he Apostles, this love of God and of men which has been daunted neither by the confinement of prison, nor chains, nor the pressures of the crowd nor the threats of kings; and the same is true of his invincible faith, which has not wavered in the combat or grown lukewarm in victory.
There is only one Pope. The rest of us are under his pastoral care. It is not for you or me to judge how the Pope ‘popes.’ Our role is to love him, pray for him, and listen to him.
Unless you have been on the moon for the past four years, you know that Pope Benedict has often been criticized in the secular communications media. First, the Pope was accused of being mean to Muslims, then of being unfair to homosexuals, then to Jews, and then to Africans suffering with AIDS. There have been more stupid cartoons about the Pope in the Washington Post than there have been about Jim Zorn and Manny Acta combined—and they deserve it much more.
Does the Pope have a sophisticated media machine, with slick handlers telling him what to say and how to say it? No. Is it possible that sometimes he wishes he had put things differently? Certainly. But is the Holy Father guilty of malice or close-mindedness as people have suggested on t.v. and in the press? Of course not. As anyone who knows him can attest, Pope Benedict is one of the gentlest and most learned men on earth.
Last month the Pope wrote a personal letter to the Bishops. Apparently some of them had publicly questioned the Holy Father’s priorities. To explain himself, the Pope recalled his first days in the See of Peter. He wrote:
I believe that I set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues unchanged as my plan of action. The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: “You… strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Peter himself formulated this priority anew in his first Letter: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).
In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses “to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.
The Pope is a sinner like everyone else. His critics attack him, however, not because he teaches error, but because he teaches the Gospel. It is not the Pope’s job to be popular. It is his duty to be faithful.
If the Roman Papacy were a human institution, it would have died out long ago. But it has survived for two millennia. We lost a holy servant of God on the Feast of Divine Mercy, 2005. But then the ministry of St. Peter was renewed–for the 264th time–on April 19th.
Let us rejoice and give thanks. May Pope Benedict live long and prosper. May God keep us united together in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.