The Pope maintains the public unity of the Church. This unity in belief and witness is essential if Jesus’ role of humanly forming and feeding us with Himself is to be continued.
The Apostle Peter was the first to be given this role, as is shown in Holy Scripture. The Pope is his “Successor”. Peter was one of the first twelve men sent out by Jesus to extend his own ministry of teaching and sanctifying. The successors of the apostles today are the bishops of the Catholic Church. With priests as their co-workers they continue to extend the ‘Kingdom’ or the ‘Reign’ of Christ in the world. St Peter and his successors have an additional role. St Peter was told by Jesus Christ that he was to be the ‘Rock’ (Matthew 16; this is what the name 'Peter' means, his original name was Simon) on which he would build his Church. The Church is on-going and so the Rock is still needed.
Even as Jesus foretold Peter’s actual betrayal he confirmed his choice of Peter as the only one who could confirm his brothers (his fellow apostles) in the faith whenever they became confused about the truth and how to govern the Church - the phrase Jesus used was that they would be ‘sifted like wheat’ (Luke 22:32). The pope exercises this ministry chiefly by teaching as ‘Successor of Peter’. He can teach without error on behalf of all the Bishops in an extra-ordinary way when he solemnly defines certain teachings as infallible. He also teaches without error when he unequivocally confirms the Church's belief as handed down from the Apostles.
As successors of the Apostles the bishops also govern and guide the Church. They are shepherds of God's people on behalf of Jesus who is "The Bishop and Shepherd of our souls" (1Peter 2: 25). The Church is not like a global corporation with a chief executive, it is a Family of families united in Christ. The Pope is the focus and head of that global family. The Pope does not run the whole Church on a daily basis; that is done by the bishop in each diocese. But in order to be part of the Catholic Church, the bishops must believe and act in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Pope is the final court of appeal for matters of faith and Church law. Although not used very often he can also intervene directly with ‘immediate jurisdiction’ in any part of the Church in any part of the world.
If we want to be in full communion with Jesus Christ we need to be in full communion with Peter’s successor in Rome.
July/ August 2019
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