REFLECTIONS ON THE PAPACY FROM JOHN XXIII TO FRANCIS – “Tu es Petrus”

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Aurelio Porfiri

His special role makes the Roman Pontiff subject to both praise and criticism. Yet we need to remember always the words of Jesus: “Tu es Petrus” — “You are Peter.” As we approach the feast of Saints Peter and Paul [celebrated today, 29 June], let us take a quick glance at what the most recent Pontiffs themselves have said about the special role and the tremendous responsibility they have inside the Church.

Saint John XXIII, in his homily (1959) for the first vespers of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, said:  “This vespertine liturgy introduces us to the great solemnity that consecrates the memory of the martyrdom of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. The glorious names of the two columns of the Church are united, by ancient tradition, to signify with a powerful appeal their stature of gigantic proportions, which, as distinguishes them from every other apostle and disciple of Jesus, unites them in the splendor of the vocation, of the ministry, of martyrdom. However, the annual recurrence, of which we are fascinated today, looks especially to the Apostle Peter, to the humble fisherman who became the Rock on which the Church rests, to him first Bishop of Rome. The antiphons of these first Vespers have appealed to him, in a crescendo of invocations and praises, to conclude the Magnificat with the joyful affirmation: “Tu es pastor ovium, Princeps Apostolorum: tibi traditae sunt claves regni coelorum!” (“You are the pastor of the sheep, Prince of Apostles: to you have been given the keys of the kingdom!) The Liturgy therefore reminds us of the marvelous structure of the Church as an organized body, which the Theologians, together with St Augustine, call the Mystical Body of Jesus, the divine Founder who placed the Prince of the Apostles as the leader of his foundation” [my translation].

Blessed Paul VI, on 29 June 1963, at the beginning of his pontificate, can only reflect on the tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. He was previously the Archbishop of Milan, a great diocese, but that cannot be compared being the Pastor of the universal Church. So he reflects with pilgrims coming from his former diocese: “Now, beloved Brothers and sons, we must meditate on the great and yet very simple novelty that has come about, which leaves us a little astonished and amazed, happy in weeping and weeping in joy. There was a transformation: the Lord wanted to place a heavy weight on my poor shoulders, perhaps because they were the weakest, the most suitable, therefore, to show that it is not He who wants something from me, but wants to be magnanimous in presence and assistance, acting in the weakest instrument to attest to his infinite power and benevolence, his unspeakable mercy. A prodigious fact happened, exalted by today’s Liturgy: Simon transformed into Peter. Simon, a cordial and ardent disciple, sometimes fickle, excitable, even weak and fragile, becomes Peter, according to the name that the Lord imposes to him, with the special grace he has received, and with the ministry of the Supreme Keys of the Kingdom entrusted to him. It is a change that, in many ways, lets Simon survive. I mean, applying to me this Gospel tract, that what is sacred, good, human that holds you to me, will remain. That is, my love for you will last; and the bonds of the blessed Lord, who united me to you, will not be dissolved, even if made different and sublimated in the new interceding bond between me and you, between the Pope and the faithful all of the Church. They will always remain in my prayer, in memory, in gratitude. I hope, indeed, that even though they are raised to the present form and height, they will never weaken, but they will also be supported by the new graces that the Lord will grant to my humble person and my great Ministry. In this way, – it is evident – those constraints, from small and particular, become universal” [my translation].

In his homily in 1979, Saint John Paul II insisted on this unavoidable difference between Simon and Peter, between the weakness and frailty of the son of Jonah and the grace bestowed to Christ’s Vicar: “Christ hears Peter’s confession, which has just been uttered. Christ looks into the soul of the Apostle, who confesses. He rightly speaks of the Father’s work in this soul. The Father’s work reaches the intellect, the will, and the heart, independently of ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’; independently of nature and the senses. The Father’s work, by means of the Holy Spirit, reaches the soul of the simple man, of the fisherman of Galilee. The interior light that comes from this work finds expression in the words: ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God.’ (Mt 16:16). The words are simple. But superhuman truth is expressed in them. Superhuman, divine truth is expressed with the help of simple, very simple, words. Such were Mary’s words at the moment of the Annunciation. Such were the words of John the Baptist at the Jordan. Such are the words of Simon in the neighbourhood of Caesarea Philippi: Simon, whom Christ called Peter.”

Benedict XVI, in 2005, brought this topic of the role of Peter and of his successors to a very high theological level, never forgetting that nothing can be done by the Popes without the Lord’s assistance: “Peter’s profession of Christ, whom he declares to be the Holy One of God, fits into the context of the Eucharistic Discourse in which Jesus announces the Day of Reconciliation through the sacrificial offering of himself: ‘the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world’ (Jn 6: 51). So this profession is the background of the priestly mystery of Jesus, his sacrifice for us all. The Church is not holy by herself; in fact, she is made up of sinners – we all know this and it is plain for all to see. Rather, she is made holy ever anew by the Holy One of God, by the purifying love of Christ. God did not only speak, but loved us very realistically; he loved us to the point of the death of his own Son. It is precisely here that we are shown the full grandeur of revelation that has, as it were, inflicted the wounds in the heart of God himself. Then each one of us can say personally, together with St Paul, I live ‘a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2: 20).”

Pope Francis, in his homily on 2013, presented the role of the Pope in a quite interesting didactic way, led by the word “confirm.” He said: “I would like to offer three thoughts on the Petrine ministry, guided by the word ‘confirm.’  What has the Bishop of Rome been called to confirm? 1. First, to confirm in faith.  The Gospel speaks of the confession of Peter: ‘You are Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16), a confession which does not come from him but from our Father in heaven.  Because of this confession, Jesus replies: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church’ (v. 18).  The role, the ecclesial service of Peter, is founded upon his confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of the living God, made possible by a grace granted from on high.  In the second part of today’s Gospel we see the peril of thinking in worldly terms…. 2. To confirm in love.  In the second reading we heard the moving words of Saint Paul: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Tm 4:7).  But what is this fight?  It is not one of those fights fought with human weapons which sadly continue to cause bloodshed throughout the world; rather, it is the fight of martyrdom.  Saint Paul has but one weapon: the message of Christ and the gift of his entire life for Christ and for others.  It is precisely this readiness to lay himself open, personally, to be consumed for the sake of the Gospel, to make himself all things to all people, unstintingly, that gives him credibility and builds up the Church.  The Bishop of Rome is called himself to live and to confirm his brothers and sisters in this love for Christ and for all others, without distinction, limits or barriers…. 3. To confirm in unity.  Here I would like to reflect for a moment on the rite which we have carried out. The pallium is a symbol of communion with the Successor of Peter, ‘the lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion’ (Lumen Gentium, 18).  And your presence today, dear brothers, is the sign that the Church’s communion does not mean uniformity.”

Each Pope with his own sensitivity builds his case for the importance and the role of the Papacy for our Catholic faith.

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