Unless you have been on another planet, you will know that this week Washington, D.C. will welcome an important guest. For a city accustomed as it is to greeting significant persons, from those renowned for acts of heroism, academic ability, or sporting prowess, to heads of state (I believe the King of Spain dropped by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week), there is a surprising amount of excitement as we prepare for the arrival of Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, on Tuesday. In an interview this week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, in his capacity as the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, underlined why this might be so: “The Holy Father,” he said, “comes as a pastor”. How true this is. As the Successor of Saint Peter, to whom Christ entrusted the power of binding and loosing hand-in-hand with the command to “feed my sheep”, the Holy Father stands in the shoes of the fisherman and as such is bound to exercise the pastoral office given him as the shepherd or pastor of the whole of Christ’s flock (Jn 21). As Peter was girded about and led to martyrdom, so his successors are called to set aside their own life in service of the universal Church as “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (LG 23).
It is often claimed that setting such authority at the door of the papacy usurps the true place of Christ as the head of the Church. The Church responds to this, echoing the words of the epistle to the Colossians: “Christ ‘is the head of the body, the Church.’ He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, ‘in everything he [is] preeminent,’ especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things” (CCC 792). Thus it is from Christ that all authority and power comes, and so from whose majesty the Successor of Saint Peter takes his power and mandate.
How, though, are we to understand the exercise of this power? Here two very practical examples are perhaps helpful. First, we recall the title given to that lowliest of all ecclesiastical creatures—the newly ordained priest—when he receives his first pastoral assignment. Very often in this country he is described as the Parochial Vicar, because he collaborates in the authority of the Pastor in the care of souls, that is in a vicarious way, but does not himself have the authority of administering the parish. Whether the Pastor is present or away, the Parochial Vicar can only legitimately do those things with which he has been tasked. He assists the Pastor in his work, but he is himself not the Pastor.
Secondly, we may be helped in understanding this by the simple fact that Pope Francis has never before visited these United States. In reality this is of little practical consequence, but even if he had visited, even as the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, these coming days would be (and are) something entirely different. As Archbishop Kurtz rightly pointed out in his interview, the Holy Father comes as a pastor—not a politician nor an economist, though he rightly concerns himself with these matters “whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it”—nor does he come (in a certain sense) as Jorge Mario Bergoglio—the man he once was—but rather as the Successor of Saint Peter and, therefore, as the Vicar of Christ who, by virtue of his office and not his own merit, “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church” (GS 76, LG 22). As Pope Benedict XVI eloquently stated during his own pontificate, “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism” (Homily, 7 May 2005).
Our present Holy Father knows this well. At the conclusion of last year’s Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops he said, “The Pope […] is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant—the ‘servant of the servants of God’; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being—by the will of Christ Himself—the ‘supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful’” (Address, 18 October 2014). In this way the office of the papacy, though it is endowed with great authority, embodies in a beautiful way the service mandated of the apostles by Christ in the gospel passage we hear today: “If any be would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9: 35). Greatness, for Christians, comes from humility, purity of intention, and service of others, and is perfected and revealed to us in the greatest of all acts, the sacrifice of Christ the Lord, Priest and Victim, on the altar of the cross – a sacrifice which is represented for us on the altar, albeit in an unbloody manner, every time we come to celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. It is for no small reason that Christ’s call to sacrificial service is one with the foretelling of his passion and death.
This, then, is to be the authentic reason for excitement and anticipation of the coming events of this week. Not because we will be in the presence of a man who is loved by the world, but because the Vicar of Christ comes to us, sent by Christ, to be a sign of Christ, and of Christ’s love for the world. As the 265th successor of Saint Peter, Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, stands in the unbroken line by means of which the gospel is handed down to us as a precious gift, that we may know Christ in an authentic way, and so come to share in the eternal joy of the saints in heaven. May his Apostolic Journey to these United States of America be for us a sign of this reality, and may each of us, charged with the missionary activity of the Church as we are, respond to that new awareness by proclaiming Christ as the unique means of salvation, and by ourselves living lives worthy of his name which, through baptism, we are privileged to share (Redemptoris Missio 2).