The Catholic Church has many things in common with other Christian denominations. Exactly how much we have in common varies greatly from case to case, in both theology and liturgy. Some Christians share little more with us than a basic faith in Christ, with very different interpretations of the Scriptures and our Lord’s life and legacy. Others, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, are almost indistinguishable from the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church; they have all seven Sacraments, devotion to Mary as Mother of God, veneration of the saints, and so forth.
The one truth that only Catholics have fully conserved is the primacy of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter. I say we have “conserved” this truth, because although the practical application and nuances of how this doctrine is understood have evolved, the core principle has its origin right in Sacred Scripture, as we hear today.
The first reading speaks of the authority given to an old testament figure named Eliakim, usually seen by theologians to prefigure Christ. The authority is described in terms of a key with the power to open and shut. To give someone the keys to a house or to an office building is to show them complete trust and give them power over who can come and go, and who can access resources. He is also compared to a peg, a solid and reliable place of support.
While this text is often seen as an image of Christ, to whom God the Father has given all authority in heaven and on Earth, in the Gospel reading, we see Jesus delegating the “keys of the Kingdom” to St. Peter, and calling him “Rock”, a solid, safe and unmoving reference point, like the peg in the first reading. The history of the early Church shows that the Apostles understood that this authority was to be passed on to Peter’s successor, just as the general role of all of the Apostles was passed on to their successors, to whom we now give the title of “bishop.”
This is a huge authority and responsibility. Peter and his successors, the popes, are charged with being a solid and unmoving reference point, who are the ultimate arbiters on earth of matters of faith and morals. Of course, they do not do this on their own; their authority and responsibility is bestowed through special divine assistance and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the wider context of the whole Church. Papal authority and infallibility varies according to the matter and context being dealt with, and it is beyond the scope of this homily to deal with the nuances. The main point is that the Pope has a divinely instituted role as the guide and shepherd of the Church, and this authority is shared in some ways by the bishops. We recognize this authority as a gift that keeps us on track, faithful to the truths revealed by God in the correct interpretation of the teachings of Scripture and Tradition.
This is not to say that every pope or bishop is holy, or even that every decision that they make is right. Infallibility is only applicable in very specific cases. However, it does mean we owe them our obedience and our respect, even if we do not understand their decisions, or even if we outright disagree. We also owe them our prayers, because they often have very difficult and complex decisions to make.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand why God puts such authority in the hands of frail men. But then, we turn to the second reading: “How unsearchable are God’s judgements, and how inscrutable His ways!” We can only trust in the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, and ask Him to help us discover that wisdom in His plan for the Church. And let us pray for the Pope and all the bishops, that the Holy Spirit will continue to enlighten them in all their decisions, to guide the Church faithfully on the road to heaven.