As with most believers and people of goodwill, I was surprised and filled with immediate concern last week when it was announced that Pope Francis was undergoing surgery.
For people of goodwill, the pope is perhaps a symbol of spiritual truth and a voice for those in need, and so they wish him the best. For believers, however, the esteem goes much deeper. Such depth can be seen in many ways, and most concisely in the commonly used – but very profound – title of “Holy Father.”
For believers, the source of our affection goes all the way back to the public ministry of Jesus Christ. The biblical account tells us that, after an evening of prayer, the Lord called twelve of his disciples to himself in a particular ministry of apostle. There were twelve, but one was chosen as the chief apostle.
Simon of Galilee, renamed “Peter” by the Lord – from sand to rock – was the one selected to hold the office of chief apostle, of the key-bearer, of a type of prime minister of the Lord’s Church. Peter was a fallen man, however, with notable weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Always ready to speak, he oftentimes jumped before he looked. During the passion of the Lord, he betrayed the Lord three times. Later, in his ministry in the early Church, he was called out on his duplicity and was corrected by Paul.
With whatever faults he may have had, however, Peter was the one chosen to hold the office of chief apostle. As our spiritual theology would assert, the Lord knew Peter better than Peter knew himself, and still the Lord selects him. It was to the office of chief apostle that the Lord would guide his Church, calling for the baptism of the gentiles, the end of the dietary laws, and the suspension of circumcision.
In an endearing part of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told of the healing power of Peter’s shadow. The early believers would line the streets and wait for Peter to pass. They did not disturb him, for he was about the Lord’s work, but they waited so that at least his shadow might fall upon the sick and suffering. Such actions show the love and the proper veneration of the early Christians for office of chief apostle. The office was not simply one of authority, but of care and of spiritual fatherhood. Although titles such as “pope” (which itself is Greek for father) or “Holy Father” were not yet used within the Church, the basis of the affection they express can be found here in the biblical narrative.
Learning from his faults, Peter held the apostolic office nobly. He loved the Lord and his people deeply and fulfilled his duties faithfully, even accepting martyrdom by crucifixion upside down, since he didn’t consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as the Lord.
The office of chief apostle, however, did not end with the death of Saint Peter. As the apostolic office of Judas the Traitor was succeeded to the person of Matthias, so the office of chief apostle was passed to another. And so it has continued for over two thousand years with two-hundred and sixty-six fallen men holding the weight of glory contained in the office of chief apostle.
While some of the holders of the office exceeded in great holiness, others became moral monsters and causes of scandal. And yet – through all of them – the love and esteem for the office of chief apostle has continued among the people of God. Drawing from innumerable examples, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Thomas More come to mind. Both men revered the papal office and showed great love for the men who held it, seeing them as spiritual fathers and men called to “holy fathers,” in spite of their known moral depravities. Saint Thomas More even died for the office, which was held by some of our worst popes at the time, because of his love for “the Holy Father,” successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ.
And so, we fast forward back to today and the recent announcement of Pope Francis’ surgery and the subsequent updates on his health. As with every age, the believers of today have the responsibility and privilege to show affection for our chief apostle and to pray for him. It is a time for us to put to the side our internal debates – however legitimate, or not – and to do what we Christians have always done best: “Look how they love one another.”
And so, we wish Pope Francis – our Holy Father – well and pray that he fully recovers and continues his apostolic ministry among us!
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby.