The Paradox of being Pope, Bishop and Church

In one of his rare moments of theological speculation, the media guru Marshall McLuhan is reputed to have said that if there were only two Catholics left in the world, one of them would have to be Pope.

McLuhan, a convert to Catholicism, but who was resolute that when it comes to the faith, chest thumping and acting all puffed up is not only vain but vulgar, was no stranger to provocative statements that packed more than their fair share of wisdom. Still, in a world that derides all authority, where hierarchy as relational order is assumed to be a remnant of bygone days, to claim that the papacy is paradigmatic of Catholicism, to the extent that there would be no Catholicism without it, sounds like a particularly tough sell.

So, is there truth to the claim that there can be no Catholicism without a Pope? … That there can be no “church” without her Bishop? And analogously, that hierarchical order is of the essence to the Catholic mindset?

I think the media-savvy McLuhan is correct that, particularly in our times—times characterized by noise and multiple opinions, but also the sheer apathy and sense of helplessness in discerning truth—this enigma strikes right at the heart of what it means to be Catholic. And it does so, precisely by revealing the nuanced and rich worldview that Catholicism always brings to the world.

Catholicism, like any healthy “incarnation” of the gospel in a Christian community, exists to manifest paradox, never rigid certainty

Catholicism, like any healthy “incarnation” of the gospel in a Christian community, exists to manifest paradox, never rigid certainty; the desire for ultimate Truth, not its fullest appropriation; the wonder of trusting in the divine, even while being fastidiously realistic about the impoverished state of the world. It believes resolutely in the intrinsic potential for flourishing of every single human being, even while it is critical to a fault of all sins. It expects to be a symbol of heaven on earth, knowing full well that she herself is the harlot chosen to be Bride.

The spirit of Catholicism is just that: the ability to exist in the tension between the already and not-yet; between one’s call and one’s sinfulness; between one’s desire for holiness and one’s powerlessness to be anywhere near perfect. It is the capacity to hold in paradox and with nuance multiple truths at the same time, knowing full well that each one merely approximates the Truth who is Christ himself.

This “Catholic” tension is exemplified, above all else, in the spiritual leader, who lives, not just to fulfill his personal Christian call to holiness, but the particular vocation to be “head” in the person of Christ; to steer the flock along the narrow path of prudence that denies all worldly extremes of “certainty.” In their role of “headship” of the Church, Pope and Bishops, embody that paradox that Catholicism recognizes as the only real path to Truth—and notwithstanding the power and authority bestowed on them, they do so through their personal poverty.

But isn’t that always the case? That no prophet is accepted in his hometown?

Many criticize Pope Francis because he often takes risks (and makes some blunders) that might seem unbecoming for the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. But I dare say, that this also is a blessing in disguise, a sheer reminder that not even the man recognized by many as “moral authority for the world” is without flaws. Rather, he is but another Peter: a fallible man, but who was chosen to be the one Rock on whose blood the Church is built. Likewise, many criticize Archbishop Scicluna for his “attitude” (whatever that might mean), or for his “words” (whichever those might be), or simply for being “the Archbishop” of this diocese. But isn’t that always the case? That no prophet is accepted in his hometown, but rather, his harshest critics are bound to be the ones who look at him with incredulity for daring to defy the villagers’ expectations?

All of us, even the most extraordinary, are broken. For this reason, we should not be surprised at the failure of Peter, the doubt of Thomas, the intransigence of Jesus’ female disciples, or even the betrayal of Judas. As Catholics, we embody them all. But in all this seeming chaos, a “pastoral presence”, the figure of Peter, remains absolutely necessary, because the Church remains called to be the “body of Christ”, to be “one” in holiness and spiritual lineage, even when spread across the world. The corporeal metaphor evokes this very paradox of unity-in-diversity, but that only makes sense when understood also as unity-under-one-leadership.

The Christian community exists not through “unity” that is properly hers, but in that of the Spirit bestowed upon her

This power of “office” however, does not deny that other paradox: that the Shepherd himself is not only personally poor, but the lowliest of servants. The one anointed on the head with chrism is also the one from whom most is expected and whose life is most expendable. For while he pastures the sheep, he always knows that they are not his own: he is but a poor shepherd and the flock belong, not to him, but to his Master. Indeed, not only does he have no claim on the flock, but it is the Master’s charism, his Spirit, that empowers the Pastor to fulfill his duty, and his duty till the end. Without that divine grace, he is truly nothing.

Likewise, the Christian community exists not through “unity” that is properly hers, but in that of the Spirit bestowed upon her. Just as the Spirit anoints with special power the “unworthy” who are chosen to give their life to the flock, so, ironically, the most “exemplary” devotion is of the Beloved Disciple, who stood unfailingly by his Master’s side and even took his mother home, but always in hiddenness and anonymity.

For such is the mutual recognition and respect of everyone’s gifts that binds the Church as one Body. The Rock loves the flock till death; the Beloved Disciple is the perfect symbol of the love binding the flock through his selfless inconspicuousness. But either way, whether in visibility or invisibility, whether as Shepherd, or as the many Master’s lambs who act as leaven in the world, all symbolize the great paradox that one must die for the community to thrive.

Till the very end, the church depends on the “visible”, paradigmatic leadership of “Pope” and “Bishop”, just as she exists as the mutual love among brothers and sisters. For only together, Sheep and Shepherd, do we witness to the Bride’s gift of eternal life.

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