Rome and the Holy Father

"You are they who have continued with me in my temptations: and I dispose to you, as my Father hath disposed to me, a kingdom; that you may eat and drink at my table, in my kingdom: and may sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren."

THE GOSPEL OF S. LUKE, 22: 28-32

At this point, we come up against issues of authority, for authority is usually delegated in a hierarchical fashion from the top to the bottom. Human society requires authority structures and, in the moral order, all authority derives from God himself (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1898-1899). Within the Christian Church, authority was originally given by Christ to a group of chosen men who formed an inner circle within the larger assembly of early Christians and disciples. These men are called by the Gospels 'Apostles' - those who are sent. Within the group of twelve Apostles was a smaller inner circle of Apostles who were closer still to Christ and chosen especially to, for example, witness the Transfiguration (Gospel of Matthew 17) and his turmoil in the garden as he awaited his Passion and Death (Matthew 26: 37). Chief among the Apostles and one of the inner circle of the three was S. Peter, who was privileged to make the first Christian confession of faith (Matthew 16: 13-20) and was promptly made the governor of the Church, with powers of binding and losing that were reserved in earlier times to the steward/vicar of the king (Isaiah 22:22).

Thus, S. Peter became the vicar of Christ's Church on earth, with responsibility for and full authority over the entire Church. The bishops of Rome, as the successors of this Apostle and administering his own bishopric have also claimed rightfully his function as the 'shepherd of the whole flock' (CCC, 881), and 'the supreme visible bond of the communion of the particular churches in the one Church' (CCC, 882, 1559). In effect, the hierarchy of the Apostles, placed under the supreme authority of the successor of Peter, is the foundation of the Church and guarantees the continued governance of the Church as begun and handed down by Christ himself. Hence the veneration shown by Catholics to the bishops and the Holy Father in Rome, as well as the devotion to the Holy City itself as the seat of the Holy Father. These days, Catholics often tend to look more towards Rome and the Holy Father than towards their own local bishops and, certainly, the Holy Father has become a type of oracle and a focus of news reporting both within and without the Catholic world. However, it is always worth noting that his authority as well as the authority of the bishops is not their own, but exercised on behalf of the King himself, Christ Jesus the Lord.

And, yet, the visibility of our Church hierarchy is not to be discounted, for it extends the visible redemption won for us by Christ in his Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection throughout the generations. The Church is by definition hierarchical, an extension once more of the hierarchy of the heavens and standing alongside the hierarchies that exist within Creation. When we look at it in this way, when we move through the ordering of Creation, the ordering of human societies in their origins and the specific ordering of the Hebrew people and the Israelite nation in their foundations... when we identify the ordering and reordering of the displaced people of the former kingdom of David and Solomon and recognise the claims of the Jewish Messiah-King, it is not surprising that Christ should erect a strong hierarchy as the foundation of his Church, and place at the top of it his chief steward and vicar, as a bridge-builder and symbol of the unity he desired for her.