Some years ago, the late Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, completed his fellowship as guest lecturer at one of the prestigious Colleges in Oxford, England. To mark that occasion, he delivered a talk which some in our Church today have characterized as a watershed speech for the Church in this new Millennium. Others, however have characterized it as a voice of discontent and disobedience representing those forces which are out to undermine the authority of the Pope. As Archbishop Quinn carefully prefaced in his thoughtful presentation, he was speaking as a loyal son of the Church in the spirit of Blessed John Cardinal Newman, the great 19th century apologist for the Catholic faith. He was very mindful of Newman’s own maxim that to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. He was also keenly aware that it is only out of self criticism done with respect and love that we are able to arrive at new insight and greater faithfulness to the Gospel as a Church.
What appears to have raised the eyebrows of conservative Catholics as well as fuel the hope of centrist and more progressive elements in the Church was Archbishop Quinn’s ever so careful critique of the Roman Curia and what he sees as overly centralized papal power in the Church at that time. An overly centralized papal power that manifests itself in the apparent arbitrary appointment of bishops throughout the world with minimal consultation with local church leadership. Historically, the naming and appointment of local bishops was very much the responsibility and prerogative of local clergy and hierarchy with, of course, the eventual approval of the candidate by the Holy Father. Archbishop Quinn was respectfully questioning whether this trend toward limiting local involvement is both wise and helpful in our Church today.
The remarks of this scholarly Archbishop continue to fuel endless battles between those who feel that they are upholding the orthodoxy of the Church today and those who feel a prophetic call that constructive criticism is good and healthy in our Church. In any case, God’s word to us this Sunday, particularly in our Gospel from St. Matthew offers an opportunity for all of us to reflect on of the distinctive elements that shape our lives as Catholic Christians. That distinctive element, of course, is the role of the one whom we refer to as the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, our Holy Father, the Pope.
Our Gospel today presents the classic text that points to the pivotal role that Peter, one of the twelve companions of the Lord, would play in leading the Christian community after the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. We should not miss the significance of the name change which occurs in today’s Gospel. The changing of a person’s name by the Lord signifies an important new task, calling and responsibility. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham for he was to become “the father of many nations”. In the 32nd chapter of the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s name was changed “Israel” and he would assume an important role in the History of Salvation. And so, in this biblical tradition, Simon’s Peter’s name is changed to “the Rock” upon this rock the Lord would build his Church.
Since St. Peter, there have been 263 successors to the one whom the Lord had chosen to be the source of communion and shepherd leadership in His Church. Tradition has it that St. Peter eventually journeyed to the center of the known world at that time, Rome, and there would become its bishop and eventually suffer martyrdom for following the Lord.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, succinctly describes the important and pivotal role that the Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor of our Church exercises today: The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, 'is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.
Over the centuries, regardless of either the great holiness or sadly at times, the personal sinfulness of some who have exercised this office in the Church, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit continues to guide our Church in the way of the Gospel through the one whom we call, “Servant of the servants of God”.
Will the functions and roles of the papacy change in the future? Will our desire to build bridges leading toward greater unity among Christian Churches sadly separated from us shape a different style of papal leadership in the future? These are questions that will undoubtedly be pondered, as Archbishop Quinn did, in the years to come. While some may see this as a threat, others will see it as a reflection of the living and dynamic quality of a Church that has continued to grow and be faithful to the Gospel for 2000 years.