In the Service of Unity

30 Jun 1991 | BUILDING COMMUNITY

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Since the amazing changes in Eastern Europe, we have learned much about the vitality of the Catholic Church under severe repression. The communion of those local persecuted churches with the See of Rome emerges as an important factor in their faithful endurance.

The experience of our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe is a lesson for Catholics everywhere. So we take the occasion of the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul this year to reflect with you about the significance of the Pope, and his office, for Catholic people in New Zealand.


1. Peter: Primary Witness of the Resurrection
Each year on Easter Day, in St Peter's Square, the Pope announces to the city of Rome and to the world the wonderful truth that is at the heart of the Christian faith: "Christ is risen, Alleluia!" Thousands of people are present; millions hear it on radio or television. When he proclaims the resurrection of Jesus Christ in this way, the Pope carries on the role of St Peter, the Apostle. Peter was the primary witness of the Easter event (1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:34). Jesus appeared first to the women, and others as well, to give irrefutable evidence of his bodily resurrection. It was Peter, however, who first publicly proclaimed the resurrection of the Lord. From the day of Pentecost, Peter led a company of Easter witnesses. He announced the Good News: "This Jesus . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up" (Acts 2:23).

2. Peter: The Shepherd
i] Peter's witness to the resurrection of Jesus is basic to what Jesus commissioned him to be and to do. But more has to be said about his role. Jesus trained Peter for leadership along with the other Apostles; Peter held first place among them and was their spokesman.

ii] Jesus equipped Peter for his task by solemn revelation, by spiritual gifts, and by authority. He made the striking promise that Peter would be the foundation on which the new community of God, the Church, would be built. He said to him: "You are Peter, the Rock, and on this rock I will build my Church and the powers of death shall not conquer it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; what you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven; what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven" (Matthew 16:18ff). Jesus is the eternal foundation of the Church; but this foundation was to appear visibly in Peter. In a unique way, Peter would represent Jesus, the head of the Church. He was given the "power of the keys", the authority to govern God's house, which is the Church. He would have authority to make binding doctrinal decisions; he would have disciplinary power in the Church to promote its unity.

After his resurrection, the Lord vested Peter with that authoritative leadership; he gave him a share in his own role as Good Shepherd. Jesus, in response to Peter's profession of love, said: "Feed my lambs . . . feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). Peter, then, was given primacy in the Church. In this office he was to strengthen the faith of the Church to enable it to stand against the forces of evil (Luke 22:31-34); as representative of Jesus, he was to care for the whole flock of Christ with a care like that of the Lord. In this office, Peter was to be an essential part of the necessary visibility of the Church.

With Paul, Peter came to Rome, then the capital of the world, and the place where the nations gathered. There they were put to death because of their witness to the risen Lord. Ever since, Peter's responsibility for the care of the whole Church has been inextricably part of the responsibility of the Church at Rome and its Bishop.
3. The Successor of Peter

a] Peter's Office

i] As primary witness to the resurrection, as recipient of revelation from Jesus Christ and as martyr, Peter's role was not to be repeated. With the other Apostles, he was associated with Jesus in the once-for-all founding of the Church. Their witness, which is the faith of the Church, remains to be preserved, proclaimed anew and handed on faithfully. It is the basis of the unity of the Church. That is why significant dimensions of Peter's office are perpetuated in the Church. Although his situation was unique, his mission is to be carried on. The responsibility and power given to Peter is necessary to the well-being and stability of the Church in every age. It is in God's design that it continues.

ii] So the Church at Rome, of which Peter and Paul are in a special way the Apostles, has a unique and indispensable role in the whole Church. It has a ministry on behalf of the apostolic faith which transmits the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For this reason, the Church at Rome is pre-eminent among all the local churches.

The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, succeeded to the primacy given to Peter. His task is to watch over all the local churches and to confirm them in the faith of the Apostles. He has the authority to guide the local churches to ensure they are fully part of the one Church. He is guardian and spokesman for all. He serves the whole Church by witnessing to the faith which Peter and Paul confessed. He does this by presiding in love over all the local churches.

iii] The primacy of the Church at Rome and its Bishop is part of the faith. The ministry of Peter, as it continues in the Church through the Pope, is a gift for God's people. It is essential to the process by which Jesus ensured that our life with God would continue to be preserved and promoted in the community of believers.
b] Its Development in History

i] The exercise of the primacy by the Bishop of Rome developed gradually. Towards the end of the first century, the Church at Rome intervened to restore peace and fervour in the Church at Corinth. Very soon, when disputes arose, the local churches turned spontaneously to Rome. By the fourth century, St Jerome could write to Pope St Damascus: "I follow no one as leader except Christ alone, and therefore I want to remain in union in the Church with you, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock the Church is founded." St Ambrose, about the same time, put it more succinctly: "Where Peter is, there is the Church."

This has continued to be held through all the vicissitudes and against all the challenges of the Church's history.

ii] The 19th century brought movements of renewal in the Church as well as new difficulties and challenges. In 1870, the First Vatican Council began a major statement on the self understanding of the Church. Before it was completed, the Council was interrupted by war. It did, however, manage to speak on the primacy of the Pope, reaffirming the fullness of his authority in the Church and his jurisdiction over the whole Church. Because his office is of divine institution, the Pope can give directives which bind the whole Church and must be obeyed in faith. The Church, the People of God, is the sign and instrument of the purposes of God and of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. The primacy of the Pope and his office is part of this sign and instrument. It shares the sacramental quality of the Church. In its teaching on collegiality, the Second Vatican Council completed and developed in important ways the work of the First.

Collegiality means that the Pope exercises his role within and as part of the Church. He is part of the College of Bishops as Peter was one of the Apostles. Like Peter, the Pope presides over that college which is charged with the care of the whole Church. He is the centre of unity for the college. Every Bishop is an authentic pastor and teacher because he is in communion with the Bishop of Rome and is a member of the College of Bishops.

As head of the College of Bishops, the Pope may act with them to serve the unity of the Church. He may also take his own initiatives for the well-being of the universal Church. The Second Vatican Council declared: "The Pope, Bishop of Rome and successor of Peter, as Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the whole Church, possesses full, supreme and universal power over the Church and is always able to exercise it without impediment" (LG 22). This means authority to teach, to declare what must be done, to rule and to lead the Church.

The Pope "on occasion speaks and acts for the whole Church" (ARCIC: Final Report, p90). Yet this does not compromise the responsibility of the local Bishop. It is intended to support and guide him as he leads and shepherds the local church entrusted to his care.

The Pope as Teacher
The common profession of faith, made in the light of the Holy Spirit, unites individual believers in a single Church. St Leo the Great said: "There is only one way of building up a single flock with a single shepherd, and that is to proclaim the same thing."

We live in a time of unprecedented uncertainty in which many doubt it is possible to know the truth. More than ever, men and women need the witness of the Church to the truth of God which is given to the world through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Church, through the teaching of its Bishops united with the Pope, is a specific, identifiable voice of this truth. In the Church this truth is made present and communicated in a human and historical way, proclaimed through the Church's teaching office with the full authority that belongs to its nature.

On certain occasions the Pope may teach the faith infallibly. Infallibility means that a teaching or definition of the faith is preserved from error. It is a quality of certainty, a gift of the Holy Spirit, that accompanies a particular teaching given by the Pope whether alone or with the Bishops teaching solemnly. The Holy Spirit keeps the Church in truth so an infallible declaration presents the faith given in Jesus Christ on the whole People of God.

Ordinarily the Pope teaches in a variety of other ways. There are the encyclical letters he addresses to the Church. These deal with many topics: aspects of belief; pastoral and spiritual questions; matters of discipline which affect the unity and harmony of the Church's life. The Pope teaches also in the talks he gives during his pastoral visits to different countries, at public audiences, and at the Angelus in St Peter's Square on Sundays. Depending on its content and the intention of the Pope, this teaching can be binding on Catholic people in different degrees. In so far as it contains a statement of the Church's faith coming from a uniquely qualified source, all of it claims our respectful assent. In his teaching the Pope draws all believers together in the confession of the one faith received from the Apostles. He carries on the mission of Peter for the Church by preserving, presenting and handing on in each age the faith of Peter.

5. The Pope as Minister of Unity
Ours is a time of rapid change and social ferment. It is well characterised by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, as a time "when things fall apart". This disintegration threatens every aspect of life. It throws the importance of the Pope's role for ensuring the Catholic unity of the Church into greater relief. In and for the world, the Church is to be sign and seed of the unity which is God's will and destiny for the human family.

This unity, given by the Spirit, is not a uniformity (although there has to be some degree and kind of uniformity if unity is to have any meaning) but is a unity in diversity. Unity means unity in the same profession of faith (the creeds and doctrine of the Church), the same sacraments, and the same ordained ministry. Within there can be diversity in the way the faith is expressed. The Second Vatican Council said: "While preserving unity in essentials, let all members of the Church, according to the office entrusted to each, preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth . . ." (Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism 4).

But this diversity cannot become a limitless plurality that would contradict unity and destroy the Church's identity. The sensitive and complex role of the Pope is to serve this unity in such a way that the Church keeps its shape and continues to be a visible sign that speaks to the world. The ground of the Church's unity is the one apostolic faith. The Pope has oversight of the universal Church to guard the heritage of Peter and Paul, and to preserve the apostolic witness on which the Church is founded. He is like a living memory for the local churches and their Bishops so that all can recognise their identity and their image in him, the leader. His primacy in love is, by divine constitution, an essential principle of unity put by God's providence in the institution of the Church. It sustains the communion in faith and witness shared by all the local churches in their respective diversity.

6. The Pope as Pastoral Leader
As teacher and as minister of unity, the Bishop of Rome carries on the work of shepherding the Church given to Peter. His task is to inspire, nourish and hearten the flock, supporting the Bishops in their leadership of the local churches.

Recent Popes, especially John Paul II, have done this by their pastoral visits, which are a source of encouragement for local churches. Through them, the service the Church at Rome gives to the whole Church is made present in an immediate and vivid way. There are, too, the pastoral initiatives proposed by the Pope for the benefit of the whole Church. Currently the Pope has invited us to a decade of evangelisation to renew the missionary understanding and work of the Church.

Of great significance for our time is the progressive development of the Church's social teaching undertaken by recent Popes. It should be a powerful stimulus in the life of the local churches. And the lead the Holy See gives in addressing world problems, such as peace and the material needs of people, is an irreplaceable service for the world.

7. The Pope and Us
Such then is the role of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in the Catholic Church. What should be our attitude to the Pope?

i] First, if we understand the Pope's office we will have an appreciative attitude to him and his ministry in and for the Church.

Our communion with the Pope is the test of our authenticity as the Catholic Church in this place.

a] The office of Peter, continued in the person of the Pope, is a gift of God to the Church to ensure that the Church stands in the truth of the apostolic faith. It guarantees that the Church is kept in that vital, visible communion which is a share in the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a gift inherent in the Church Jesus Christ founded. We who follow Jesus Christ as members of the Catholic Church must be deeply grateful for the gift of Peter's office and for him who ministers in it today.

b] The office of the Pope is a gift which the Catholic Church brings to its ecumenical relations with other churches and Christian communities. It is significant that a number of our partners in ecumenical dialogue are willing to consider again the place of Peter and the primacy of the Pope in God's plan for the Church.

It would be a great disservice to ecumenism were Catholics to leave aside or diminish the Pope's role for the sake of relating to other Christians. True ecumenism means growing into the fullness of Christ's truth. Catholics must come to the ecumenical movement with all the gifts we believe are essential to the Church of Jesus Christ. The Papacy is one of these.

c] It is also significant for dialogue with other world religions. That was evident in a remarkable way at the gathering at Assisi in 1986. Only the Pope could have assembled that great gathering of leaders of the major religions to pray and witness for peace.

d] Although irreligious forces are strong in our world and many reject the Christian faith, the Pope is a force for goodness, for peace and reconciliation, for justice and for mutual understanding at the level of international relations. That was evident in the dramatic turn of events in Eastern Europe; it was evident more recently at the time of the Gulf War. Internationally, the Pope's ministry makes it possible for the Church better to be a sign of hope and salvation for the whole world, as does the witness of Christians in their communities for the local situation.

ii] If we have an adequate grasp of the Pope's role in the teaching task of the Church, then we shall be open and receptive to the teaching he gives.

a] Our world desperately needs the word of truth given by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Church is sign and instrument of that truth. God's revelation communicates that truth for the life and freedom of the world. Pope and Bishops are, in a special way, ministers of that truth which is to be received and shown forth through the whole life and activity of the Church.

b] We should not be dismayed or unduly influenced if the teaching of the Church, handed on through the Pope, is contradicted or rejected by the world. Inhuman and evil ideologies react fiercely against the Gospel of God. The word of truth which the Church proclaims is for the world and its salvation; that is.why it will often have to contradict what is of the world.

c] A positive, receptive attitude to the teaching of the Pope in no way excludes theological inquiry or the questions which confront a believer under the pressure of daily life.

Faith rightly seeks understanding. There is always a place in the Church for this search. It illumines the Church when it is undertaken in a loyal and positive spirit; on the other hand, a negative or destructive questioning weakens the communion of the Church and impedes its witness.

The same is true for criticism. Positive criticism that seeks to restore and renew vision of the Church is even a necessity. It can contribute to the teaching ministry of the Church and of the Pope. However, for criticism to be authentic, it must be scrupulously respectful of revealed truth; it can be effective only if made with the love that belongs to the communal life of the Church.

iii] We address a special word to the priests of New Zealand. You are our co-workers as we strive to serve the unity of the Church in this land under the leadership of the Pope.

We invite you to co-operate with us in new efforts to teach Catholics about the place and service of the Pope in the Church according to God's design. They need this knowledge to participate fully and joyfully in the life of the Catholic Church.

When we were with the Holy Father for our ad limina visit in 1988, we were struck by his feeling for the Church in New Zealand as it faces challenges from secularism and from grave social and economic difficulties. His concern for us and our task was evident. In spirit and in prayer, he wants to be with us as he and we give ourselves daily to the service of God's people.

iv] In John Paul II, we have a great Pope. With patience and perseverance, he carries on the role of Peter in today's world. He does so with wisdom and many a prophetic word. He stands firm in teaching and leadership at a time when the Church and the world need guidance and direction. His compassion and understanding reach out to people in all sorts of situations. His own steadfastness gives courage to believers as well as to all people of goodwill. If we have understood what God does in the Church for the world through the office of the Pope, then we shall readily and lovingly support Pope John Paul II with our prayers.

We already pray for him by name in every Mass. He should be frequently in our personal prayers.

So we invite you to use, regularly, in personal prayer in your homes, in your parish or diocesan groups, this prayer for the Pope taken from the Church's liturgy:

Lord,
source of eternal life and truth,
give to your shepherd, Pope John Paul II,
a spirit of courage and right judgement,
a spirit of knowledge and love.
By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care,
may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and Vicar of Christ,
build your Church into a sacrament of unity, love and peace
for all the world.

We ask this through Christ, our Lord,
Amen.

We greet you with the peace and love of the risen Lord who is with his Church in every age. May you, your families and loved ones know his hope in full measure, find joy in his word of truth, and be kept firm in the faith which gives light to your life.