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A Primacy of Love

On the 28th of September 1978, the western world awoke to the news that Pope John Paul I had died in his sleep. The shock was worldwide. The lovable, smiling pope had been in office only 33 days, a short enough time to take charge of the Roman Catholic Church and its 700 million members but long enough time to create an image of warmth, friendship and openness to all men.

Pope John Paul I's death was one of several events that caused the world's attention in 1978 to focus on the papacy. First, in July came the death of Pope Paul VI, frail but vibrant champion of the cause of peace and justice, a man with whom more than a few had disagreed but a man nonetheless whose personal holiness no one doubted. His outdoor funeral in the piazza of St. Peter's in the Vatican brought together some 200,000 mourners, among them official representatives of other churches and religions. Their presence was a genuine expression of respect.

When the customary nine day period of mourning had passed, the college of Cardinals in a brief conclave (or electoral session) chose Cardinal Albino Luciani as pope. To express continuity of policy and spirit with his two immediate predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, the popes of Vatican Council II, the new pope chose the name of John Paul I. "Papa Luciani" had been Cardinal Archbishop of the important and historic city of Venice in northern Italy and a man respected in those parts for his judgment and theological competence but even more so for his pastoral concern for all his fellow citizens. Outside of that area, he was comparatively unknown. But the situation soon changed when he became pope.

Correspondents on the scene like to describe the first appearance of Pope John Paul I on the balcony over the great main door of St. Peter's basilica. The usual announcement was made in Latin, "I bring you a message of great joy. We have a new pope, Albino Cardinal Luciani, who has chosen the name Pope John Paul l." The immediate reaction was one of wonderment: "Albino who?" The wonderment continued as the pope blessed the people. Then he smiled an almost shy but marvelously infectious smile. It was like Kipling's dawn that "came up like thunder." The applause, the delighted shouting was deafening. Anyone who smiled like that in a world more and more prone to gloom had to be good for the Church and for people everywhere.

Yet, almost as suddenly as he appeared on the world scene, il papa del sorriso (the smiling pope) was gone. "Like a comet in the sky," said Cardinal Confalonieri who preached at his funeral. Again the solemn funeral in St. Peter's square (this time amid intermittent rain), again the nine day period of mourning, again the conclave and the election of a new pope. Speculation ran to a half-dozen candidates, mostly Italians, but the choice settled on Karolus Josef Woityla, archbishop of Cracow in Poland.


Choosing the name of John Paul II, the new pope paid tribute to his beloved predecessor and, like him, to Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Almost at once, however, he established his popularity in his own right, talking several languages with ease and proving to be a man at home among people both great and small.

The funerals and inaugurations of the popes were carried on worldwide television as well as given wide coverage in the other media. Suddenly it seemed that the whole world was talking about the papacy. Old questions began to be asked again but in a new way.

Where before the mood was one of bitterness and hostility, bred by anti-Catholic feelings, the mood now was one of a certain friendliness. People were not interested in old sectarian debates but rather in understanding what the papacy means to Catholics, its scriptural roots, its historical significance and some specific questions on the meaning of papal infallibility. It is in response to such inquiries that the following pages are written.

Whether one agrees or not with the scriptural interpretations with which Catholics support their beliefs in the papacy, it is hoped that in any event the pope will no longer be cast in such outlandish roles as anti-Christ, the beast of the Apocalypse and so on, even though certain little tracts continue to foist such nonsense upon those disposed to listen. No one denies that in past ages, particularly when the whole of Europe was in political and cultural turmoil, the private lives of some popes were less than edifying. For the record, however, it needs to be said that not even the worst popes ever taught erroneous doctrine and that in a line of some 260 popes, the scandalous ones are very few indeed.


Regardless of the past record, the popes of the present century have been men of outstanding merit. Not the least of their virtues has been an extraordinary concern for mankind, particularly the poor, the persecuted and the suffering. Pope Leo XIII whose pontificate bridged the 19th and 20th centuries was the great champion of labor relations and his encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum, on this subject is still studied. Pius X (1903-1914) was concerned about the Christian education of youth and the spiritual situation in Russia (before the Communist revolt!). Benedict XV (1914-1922) literally wore himself out in efforts to end World War I and establish a just peace. Pius XI (1922-1939) in a far-ranging concern talked about Christian education, the missions, the priesthood, family-life, marriage, labor problems and world justice. In a blunt encyclical he denounced Hitler and Nazi hysteria. Pius XII (1939-1958) suffered through World War II and worked in every way open to him to relieve suffering and prevent the mass murder of Jews and others, including thousands of Christian Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians. (For all that, he has not escaped the harsh judgment of some who claim that he should have done more. Time and the evaluation of new evidence will tell, we are sure, that such judgment is unjust.)

Pope John XXIII followed Pius XII in 1958. His genial optimism brought new hope to the world. He sounded a call for world peace in Pacem in Terris. In the Second Vatican Council which he convoked, he urged upon the Church a new attention to the spiritual and material needs of the world. Succeeding him in 1963, Pope Paul VI saw the work of the Council to completion and continued John's interest in the emerging nations in particular and in the family of nations in general. The first pope to address the United Nations General Assembly, he pleaded for justice and peace. "If you want peace," he often said, "work for justice."

In all this, surely the unprejudiced will see the pope not as a monster or despot or anti-Christ, but rather as one who is sensitive to a divine vocation that calls upon him to speak for and to the Catholic people and to inspire and challenge them to be a force for good in the world, like yeast which a woman took and kneaded into dough until it began to rise" (cfr. Mt 13,33).


When we consider the lives and activities of these recent popes, we see an ever deepening consciousness of the root meaning of Christian authority. That meaning is one of service. With few exceptions, the popes have generally been aware of this, but now as the world is better known and its problems brought home by modern communications, the demands of this service have become truly awesome. The assembled Catholic bishops in the Second Vatican Council (1963-1966) had much to say on Church service. In relation to the pope in particular, the Council emphasized that while he was indeed Christ's Vicar and the Church's Supreme Leader, he was not expected to shoulder the burden alone. Forming a college with the bishops, like Peter with the other Apostles, his relationship with them is summarized in the Council's Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church: "The bishops also have been designated by the Holy Spirit to take the place of the Apostles as pastors of souls and, together with the Supreme Pontiff and subject to his authority, they are commissioned to perpetuate the work of Christ, the eternal Pastor." (#2).


Now more than in past times, the title preferred by the popes is not Sovereign Pontiff but "Servant of the Servants of God." Lest even this seem a bit too high-sounding, Pope John Paul I preferred the title, "Supreme Pastor" the chief shepherd upon whom rests ultimately the total welfare of the flock. St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) had another felicitous phrase, "Vicar of Christ's Love," the symbol and visible manifestation of the outgoing love of Christ, the Good Shepherd for all his sheep, those that are evidently his as well as those "other sheep" whom he wishes to bring into the one fold of the one Shepherd" (cfr Jn 10, 1-18).

St. Ambrose's phrase reflects the scene in which Christ gave Peter his special commission of love. On a morning after the resurrection, the Lord appeared on the shore of lake Tiberias. He ate with the eleven. Then he spoke to Peter.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." At which Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

A second time he put the question, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," Peter said, "you know that I love you." Jesus replied, "Tend my sheep."

A third time Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because he had asked a third time, "Do you love me?" So he said to him, "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." (Jn 21, 15-17).

Here was a dialogue full of divine forgiveness. Peter had denied Christ three times. Now in response to a threefold profession of love, he is forgiven. Here is a dialogue of divine assurance, for as Jesus had previously prayed, now it would come to pass that Peter, once confirmed in faith, would be the one to strengthen his brethren (cfr Lk 22, 31-32).

Peter's role as chief shepherd of the flock of Christ was, therefore, primarily one of love. Hence, from the first, the role of Peter's successors was understood by them and by the Church. They were vicars of Christ who through them continued to say to the Church, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." In this regard it is significant that the first successors of Peter were all martyrs, literally fulfilling Christ's words. What wonder that St. Ignatius of Antioch writing at the start of the second century was already able to say that the bishop of Rome had "presidency of love." If love was to be the hallmark of Christ's church (cfr Jn 13, 353, the pope was to be the living symbol of that ideal.

Courtesy of Catholic Information Network (CIN)



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved