April 21, 2005
Jesus chose the first Pope. In the open air. Lakeside along the shores of Tiberias. This week, the world watched the Cardinals enter the conclave. Great secrecy. Tight security. Even before they began, trained personnel swept their rooms for electronic bugs. The Church has learned many lessons in how to hand on the office of Peter.
When the Church was young, it was small. Since the Pope was the bishop of Rome, he was chosen as other bishops were chosen. The clergy and the people of Rome elected their spiritual leader who then succeeded to the role of Peter. But popular elections brought problems. Factions. Arguments. Power. Influence. In the early 3
rd century A.D., there was strong discussion whether individuals who had denied the faith to escape martyrdom should be expelled from the Church. Pope Callistus I kept the doors of the Church open to sinners. He refused to expel apostates. Rigorists rejected his leadership. They elected the first antipope Hippolytus. Since then, there have been 37 other antipopes.
We witness a dignified and prayerful choice for our new Pope. Not always so in the past. In October 366, a large majority elected Damasus I as Pope. Overly enthusiastic supporters of the deceased Pope rejected him. They elected a deacon named Ursinus as Pope. They had him irregularly consecrated and then resorted to violence and bloodshed to seat him on the Chair of Peter. The Church turned to civil authorities for protection. The civil authorities obliged. They began protecting the election and the candidates. They also began using their power to influence the election.
Byzantine emperors claimed the right to approve the newly elected Pope. Sometimes a man would have to wait months after his election for the approval. Even in modern times, Catholic monarchs claimed the “right of exclusion.” Kings would block the election of someone they feared would not be friendly to their national interests. When St. Pius X was elected in the conclave of 1903, he abolished this right. It is reported that Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Hungary had attempted to use this influence.
In the 11
th century, Nicholas II reformed the election process. And reform has continued through the great Popes of our day. John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II all reformed the election process of their successor to better respond to a changing world. The Church learns with experience.
When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Church of Rome inherited the role of "mother church." Rome is in the West. Yet, even in the East, the See of Rome was respected. Peter and Paul both labored in Rome. Both were martyred in Rome. By the close of the first century, St. Ignatius of Antioch writes to the "church in Rome which presides in love." In the third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage speaks of the Church of Rome as the ‘chair of Peter’ and ‘the principle Church in which sacerdotal unity has its source’ (Ep. 59, 14). St. Augustine witnesses the authority of the Pope in settling disputes. “
Roma locuta est; causa finita est—Rome has spoken the case is closed”(Sermon 131, 6:10).
For the first thousand years, the bishop of Rome was seen as the instrument of unity within the Church. Popes were not always saints. Decisions not always tension-free. But the interventions of the bishop of Rome carried special weight.
After Constantine made Christianity legal 313 A.D., Arianism was the first doctrinal dispute to divide Christians. Arius made the Son of God less than the Father, a creature greater than man, but not eternal. To settle the controversy, bishops gather in the Council of Nicea. So recent had the last persecution been that many of the 318 bishops attending the synod bore on their bodies the tortures they had suffered for the faith. Many saw them and were moved to tears. The Council proposed the truth faith. Pope Sylvester I confirmed the decision. And so today we hold to the true faith when we say, "I believe...in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God... true God of true God. Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father...."
Standing with Rome, the Church remained united in the faith handed down from Peter. Through the centuries, bishops from around the world met and, under the primacy of the Pope, kept the faith of the Church intact. Pope St. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching that Jesus had two natures, one human and one divine. Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council’s teaching on the Eucharist. The Popes have served the Church and the world. Leo the Great held back the advance of Attila the Hun. John Paul the Great stood strong against the tide of moral relativism. “
Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia,” (St Ambrose,
Commentary on the Psalms 40, 30). Where Peter stands on an issue, there is the faith of the Church.
Eighty-one Popes have been canonized and 7 have been beatified. Not every Pope has been a saint. But each Pope has inherited the office given to Peter. On the shores of Tiberias, the Risen Lord fulfills the promise he made to Peter when he changed his name (Jn 21; 15-19). Three times, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. With each affirmation of love, Peter reverses his threefold denial of Jesus. Then Christ commissions Peter to be the shepherd of the whole Church. Three times he tells Peter, “feed my sheep.” In the Near East, saying something three times before witnesses makes it legal. Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10). Now he hands over to Peter the authority to be his vicar on earth. After appointing Peter the shepherd of the universal Church, Jesus repeats the words he spoke to Peter at the beginning of his public ministry. “Follow me,” he says (Jn 21:19; cf Mk 1:16-18). To be a good leader means to be a good disciple.
On the shores of a city named after the Roman Pontiff, Jesus names a new Pontiff for his Church. On the shores of the Tiber, another man is now called to this office. Our new Holy Father now receives directly from Christ himself the same commission he gave to Peter. Like Peter himself, may our new shepherd lead us in following Jesus.