WHEN IS THE POPE MOST POWERFUL?
A triumphalistic view of the papacy revels in today’s Gospel reading as if the Pope were a God on earth, with exclusive authority in matters spiritual, infallible in all his utterances and never to be challenged or contradicted. This view of the papacy belongs to the feudalism of the Middle Ages when a Pope like Boniface VIII even expected all temporal power in the world to be subject to him!
Aberrations of this kind have waxed and waned throughout the history of the Church due to a combination of personal sinfulness on the part of some successors of St. Peter, geopolitical manoeuvrings, the lack of education of the faithful and the instability of both Church and society in certain epochs of history.
Taking all that as a given, and without any of it being glossed over or excused, the Petrine Office, or the charism and ministry of the Papacy, is unquestionably something willed by Christ for his Church. I emphasize, his Church, not the Pope’s and not ours! “On this rock I will build myChurch”!
It is therefore instructive, if not essential, if we are to understand the true meaning of the Papacy, to look at whom Jesus first picked to be the model, the exemplar, of that Office. Whoever happens to be the Pope at any given point in time is still the Successor of Peter, is still invested with the Petrine Office. He may not choose to consider the Papacy as some function or other which he can then manipulate to suit some agenda of his own, as was patently the case in so many Popes of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance (but not exclusive to those periods). You could even go as far as to say that the man who becomes the Pope must divest himself of himself and become Peter.
The power of the Papacy does not lie in authoritarianism, political prowess, diplomatic cunning, international alliances or any of these worldly things. Peter was most powerful when he recovered from his denials of Jesus and professed his love for him with tears and a broken heart. In these moments, Peter was vulnerable to the power of the Spirit of the Father and the Son, for any vacuous notions he had of himself were gone. In repentance and tears, He was putty in the hands of the only One building His Church.
Akin to the repentant Peter is the suffering Peter. Ecclesiastical office of any rank is essentially to be humiliated with Christ Crucified. God’s power is made perfect in Peter’s weakness and suffering. It is then that we see and feel the greatest power of the Pope.