In front of me is a man dressed in the white of ancient custom, with a cross over his chest. This man who is called the Pope (from "father," in Greek) is a mystery in and of himself, a sign of contradiction. He is even considered a challenge or a "scandal" to logic or good sense by many of our contemporaries.
Confronted with the Pope, one must make a choice. The leader of the Catholic Church is defined by the faith as the Vicar of Jesus Christ (and is accepted as such by believers). The Pope is considered the man on earth who represents the Son of God, who "takes the place" of the Second Person of the omnipotent God of the Trinity.
Each Pope regards his role with a sense of duty and humility, of course, but also with an equal sense of confidence. Catholics believe this and therefore they call him "Holy Father" or "Your Holiness."
Nevertheless, according to many others, this is an absurd and unbelievable claim. The Pope, for them, is not God's representative. He is, instead, the surviving witness of ancient myths and legends that today the "adult" does not accept.
Confronted with you-as with each of your predecessors and successors-one must wager, as Pascal said, that you are either the mysterious living proof of the Creator of the universe or the central protagonist of a millennial illusion.
May I ask: Have you ever once hesitated in your belief in your relationship with Jesus Christ and therefore with God? Haven't you ever had, not doubts certainly, but at least questions and problems (as is human) about the truth of this Creed which is repeated at each Mass and which proclaims an unprecedented faith, of which you are the highest guarantor?
My explanation begins by clarifying words and concepts. Your question is
infused with both a lively faith and a certain anxiety. I state right from
the outset: "Be not afraid!" This is the same exhortation that resounded at
the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.
Christ addressed this invitation many times to those
He met. The angel said to Mary: "Be not afraid!"
(cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: "Be not afraid!" (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: "Be not afraid!" He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.
The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter's Square: "Be not afraid!" These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.
Of what should we not be afraid? We should not fear the truth about ourselves. One day Peter became aware of this and with particular energy he said to Jesus: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man"
Peter was not the only one who was aware of this truth. Every man has learned it. Every successor to Peter has learned it. I learned it very well. Every one of us is indebted to Peter for what he said on that day: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Christ answered him: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10). Do not be afraid of men! Man is always the same. The systems he creates are always imperfect, and the more imperfect they are, the more he is sure of himself. Where does this originate? It comes from the human heart. Our hearts are anxious. Christ knows our anguish best
of all: "Christ knows that which is in every man"
(cf. Jn 2:25).
Returning to your question, I would like to recall the words of Christ together with my first words in St. Peter's Square: "Be not afraid." Have no fear when people call me the "Vicar of Christ," when they say to me "Holy Father," or "Your Holiness," or use titles similar to these, which seem even inimical to the Gospel. Christ himself declared: "Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Messiah" (Mt 23:9-10). These expressions, nevertheless, have evolved out of a long tradition, becoming part of common usage. One must not be afraid of these words either.
Every time Christ exhorts us to have no fear, He has both God and man in mind. He means: Do not be afraid of God, who, according to philosophers, is the transcendent Absolute. Do not be afraid of God, but invoke Him with me: "Our Father" (Mt 6:9). Do not be afraid to say "Father"! Desire to be perfect just as He is, because He is perfect. "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).
. . .
Christ is the sacrament of the invisible God-a sacrament that indicates presence. God is with us. God, infinitely perfect, is not only with man, but He Himself became a man in Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid of God who became a man! It was precisely this that Peter said at Caesarea Philippi: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). Indirectly He affirmed: You are the Son of God who became a man. Peter was not afraid to say it, even if these words did not come from him. They came from the Father. "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son" (cf. Mt 11:27).
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father" (Mt 16:17). Peter uttered these words through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church also continues to utter them through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Peter was not afraid of God who had become a man. He was afraid, instead, for the Son of God as a man. Peter could not accept that He would be whipped and crowned with thorns and finally crucified. Peter could not accept that. He was afraid. And for this Christ severely reproached him, but He did not reject him.
Peter had goodwill and a fervent heart and Christ did not reject him, this man who at Gethsemane even drew his sword in order to defend his Master. Jesus only said to him: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed...and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" (cf. Lk 22:31-32). Christ did not reject Peter; He valued his profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi and, with the power of the Holy Spirit, He led him through His Passion and beyond his denial.
Peter, as a man, demonstrated that he was not capable of following Christ everywhere, and especially not to death. After the Resurrection, however, he was the first of the apostles to realize, together with John, that Christ's body was not in the tomb.
Even after the Resurrection, Christ confirmed Peter's mission. He said meaningfully: "Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep" (Jn 21:15-16). But first Christ asked if Peter loved Him. Peter, who had denied Christ but had not stopped loving Him, was able to respond: "You know that I love you" (Jn 21:15). But he did not say again: "Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you" (Mt 26:35). It was no longer only a question of Peter, and of his simple human strengths; it had become by now a question of the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ to the one who would take His place on earth.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter was the first to speak to the gathered Israelites and to others who had traveled various distances. He reminded them
of the wrong committed by those who had nailed Christ to the Cross, and then He confirmed His Resurrection. He exhorted the people to conversion and to baptism. Thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ could have confidence in Peter, He could lean on him-on him and on all the other apostles-even on Paul, who still persecuted Christians and hated the name Jesus.
Against this background, a historical background, expressions such as "Supreme Pontiff," "Your Holiness," and "Holy Father" are of little importance. What is important originates in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. What is important is that which comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. For example, Peter, together with the other apostles, and (after his conversion) Paul became authentic witnesses of Christ, faithful unto the shedding of their blood.
Peter did not further deny Christ and he never repeated his unfortunate statement: "I do not know the man" (Mt 26:72). He persevered in his faith up until the end: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). He became the "rock," even if as a man, perhaps, he was nothing more than shifting sand. Christ Himself is the rock, and Christ builds His Church on Peter-on Peter, Paul, and the apostles. The Church is apostolic in virtue of Christ.
This Church professes: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Over the centuries this has been the Church's profession of faith, as well as that of those who share her faith and of all those to whom the Father revealed the Son in the Holy Spirit, just
as the Son in the Holy Spirit revealed to them the Father (cf. Mt 11:25-27).
This Revelation is definitive; one can only accept it or reject it. One can accept it, professing belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, the Son, of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and the Giver of life. Or one can reject all of this, writing in capital letters: "God does not have a Son"; "Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, He is only one of the prophets, and even if not the least of them, he is only a man."
How can we marvel at such arguments when we know that Peter himself had difficulties in this respect? He believed in the Son of God, but he was unable to accept that this Son of God, as a man, could be whipped, crowned with thorns, and then had to die on the Cross.
Is it any wonder that even those who believe in one God, of whom Abraham was a witness, find it difficult to have faith in a crucified God? They hold that God can only be powerful and grandiose, absolutely transcendent and beautiful in His power, holy and inaccessible to man. God can only be this! He cannot be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He cannot be Love that gives of Himself and that permits that He be seen, that He be heard, that He
be imitated as a man, that He be bound, that He be beaten and crucified. This cannot be God! Therefore, at the center of a great tradition of monotheism a profound division was introduced.
In the Church-built on the rock that is Christ-
Peter, the apostles, and their successors are witnesses of God crucified and risen in Christ. They are witnesses of the life that is stronger than death. They are witnesses of God who gives life because He is Love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8). They are witnesses because they saw, heard, and touched with their hands the eyes and ears of Peter, John, and many others. But Christ said to Thomas: "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn 20:29).
You rightly assert that the Pope is a mystery. You rightly assert that he is a sign that will be contradicted, that he is a challenge. The old man Simeon said of Christ Himself that He would be "a sign that will be contradicted" (cf. Lk 2:34).
You also contend that, confronted with such a truth-that is, confronted with the Pope-one must choose; and for many the choice is not easy. But was it so easy for Peter? Was it easy for any of his successors? Is it easy for the present Pope? To choose requires man's initiative. Christ says: "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father" (Mt 16:17). This choice, therefore, is not only a human initiative but also an act of God, who works and reveals himself through man. And in virtue of such an act of God, a person can repeat, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16), and then recite the entire Creed, which echoes the profound logic of Revelation. A man can also remind himself, as well as others, of the consequences of this logic of the faith which also display the same splendor of the truth. A man can do all of this even though he knows that because of it he will become "a sign that will be contradicted."
What remains for such a man? Only the words that Jesus Himself addressed to the apostles: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours" (Jn 15:20). And so: "Have no fear!" Do not be afraid of God's mystery; do not be afraid of His love; and do not be afraid of man's weakness or of his grandeur! Man does not cease to be great, not even in his weakness. Do not be afraid of being witnesses to the dignity of every human being, from the moment of conception until death.
Once again, concerning names: The Pope is called the "Vicar of Christ." This title should be considered within the entire context of the Gospel. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus said to the apostles: "I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt 28:20). Though invisible, He is personally present in His Church. He is likewise present in each Christian, by virtue of baptism and the other sacraments. It was usual to say, as early as the era of the Fathers, "Christianus alter Christus" ("The Christian is another Christ"), meaning by this to emphasize the dignity
of the baptized and his vocation, through Christ, to holiness.
Furthermore, Christ brings about a special presence in every priest, who, when celebrating the Eucharist or administering the sacraments, does so in persona Christi.
From this perspective, the expression "Vicar of Christ" assumes its true meaning. More than dignity, it alludes to service. It emphasizes the duties of the Pope in the Church, his Petrine ministry, carried out for the good of the Church and the faithful. Saint Gregory the Great understood this perfectly when, out of all the titles connected to the functions of the Bishop of Rome, he preferred that of Servus servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God).
The Pope is not the only one who holds this title. With regard to the Church entrusted to him, each bishop is Vicarius Christi. The Pope is Vicar of Christ with regard to the Church of Rome and, through that Church, of every Church in communion with it-a communion in faith as well as an institutional and canonical communion. Thus, if with this title one wants to refer to the dignity of the Bishop of Rome, one cannot consider it apart from the dignity of the entire college of bishops, with which it is tightly bound, as it is to the dignity of each bishop, each priest, and each of the baptized.
What supreme dignity those men and women have who are consecrated, who, as their vocation, have chosen to embrace the nuptial dimension of
the Church-Christ's bride! Christ, Redeemer of the world and of humanity, is the Bridegroom of the Church and of all of those who belong to it: "The bridegroom is with them" (cf. Mt 9:15). One duty of the Pope is to profess this truth and to render it present to the Church in Rome as well as to the entire Church, to all humanity, and to the whole world.
To allay to some degree your fears, which seem to arise from a profound faith, I would suggest a reading of Saint Augustine, who often repeated: "Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum christianus" ("I am a bishop for you, I am a Christian with you"; cf., for example, Sermon 340.1: J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina 38.1483). On further reflection, christianus has far greater significance than episcopus, even if the subject is the Bishop of Rome.