PAPAL VISIT REPORT: Biblical Reflections on Seeing a Pope
Like many this past week, I was blessed to have the rare opportunity to see Pope Francis up close and personal during his U.S. tour. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances share their stories of their varying successes in seeing the Pope. Some got outside the U.S. Capitol building and saw him as a distant dot in a sea of people that probably rivaled the crowd Christ got at the Sermon on the Mount. Some got a relatively decent view of him on his parade routes in Washington and New York. A few got to attend one of the Papal Masses; one priest friend of mine got up close and personal at the one in Philadelphia.
For me, it was a brief encounter of only a few seconds, but still enough to impress. I was able to get one of the coveted spots on the Joint Base Andrews flight line to see him off for his flight from Washington to New York. The now famous Fiat pulled directly in front of me, and I caught a glimpse of the Pontiff through his car window. My view was largely blocked after that, but I did see him ascend his plane, turn and bless the crowd, and then depart. This wasn’t as impressive as, say, receiving communion directly from the man, but it was pretty good. I drove home marveling at that relatively rare fact that I’d seen a Pope in person, something that doesn’t regularly happen to people who live outside of Rome.
The ripples of Francis’s [*] visit are still being felt in the days after his visit, and I suspect they won’t be easily forgotten even with our short, human memories. Major news outlets are still reflecting on who this man is and what his visit means to us. People who outright rejected Pope Benedict XVI as a foolish old man are taking sudden notice of this particular Pope, not even realizing that he and Benedict really aren’t far apart in matters of doctrine. The Holy Spirt acts in ways we can’t possibly understand, but we should be grateful for the impact that it’s having through Francis on people who had been treating Catholicism as a joke for years.
In the aftermath of the visit, though, it’s worth reflecting on Pope Francis’ celebrity and what it means to us. I am not sure celebrity is a vice. Jesus had celebrity and plenty of it, and I don’t doubt that many converts were drawn to him through that mechanism. Still, celebrity is fleeting as it risks becoming idolatry, and as Isaiah taught us, idolatry is shallow and empty when exposed. (Isaiah 44:6-23). The crowds who idolized Jesus quickly rejected him when he turned out not to meet their expectations of a Maccabean revolutionary who would overthrow Rome. We have to exercise caution in our approach to the Pope: as Catholics, we love our pontiff, but the question is why do we love him so?
I want to reflect on three things in the aftermath of Pope Francis’s “rock star” visit. The first is that our excitement over Francis’s visit, and on seeing him in person, is not inherently a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the fact that God created us as both physical and spiritual beings. There’s an old linguistic duel over whether human beings are bodies who have a soul, or souls who have a body. In truth, Catholicism sees us as both: we are created as bodies and souls together, and it is how we exist in this world. Granted, at death the two separate, and the body dies while the soul lives on to face its judgment. However, God did not make human beings for death, and we are promised at the end of time that the two will be reunited to face eternal judgment together.
But let’s reflect on the physical. God created us with bodies for a reason. We are not free-floating ghosts in some empty spirit world, but beings who are meant to interact with the world around us, through touch, taste, and sound. Procreation is physical: a union of two bodies to create a third, meeting with Heaven to add a soul to the creation of new flesh. (Song of Songs reminds us that procreation is very physical indeed.) Jesus regularly interacted with His followers through physical touch, and so many of his dealings were dependent on Him touching or being touched by the sick. (Luke 8:44). Even in one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, He makes a point of eating some fish to prove that He is a real, returned person. (John 21).
The early Church made a point of celebrating our physical states as well. One of its earliest difficulties was in combatting the heresy of Gnosticism, which saw the physical world as inherently evil. One of the Church’s early weapons was to institute the Feast of the Circumcision, to remind us that Jesus underwent the same ritual cutting as his Jewish brethren—a very real and physical (painful) act. Today we acknowledge it as the Solemnity of Mary on January 1 (a week after Christmas in keeping with circumcision falling seven days after a Jewish birth), but before it was a Marian feast, the emphasis was on recognizing Jesus’s human nature.
So seeing a Pope in person is, perhaps, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the physical nature which God has given us. It is undeniable that there’s a fundamental distinction between seeing the Pope on television versus actually seeing him in person. Likewise, any person who claims that talking with their spouse on the telephone is equivalent to being physically together probably has a very boring marriage. We were made as physical beings—the Pope coming to us in person beautifully illustrates how true that is.
Second: what is the significance of a Pope? Certainly all people recognize him as the head of the Roman Church, and most American pundits and politicians gave him a basic degree of respect because of that fact. But on that very basic level, Pope Francis perhaps received no more respect than any other head of state or major popular figure. We respect him because he’s important, but importance is relative and fleeting.
No, the Pope represents something more. Catholics certainly recognize him on a higher level, not just as the political head of the Church but also the spiritual head—the one who speaks authoritatively on doctrine and is very persuasive in terms of interpreting scripture and tradition. But again, any Church has its spiritual head. Parishes have monsignors and diocese have bishops, and in some sense, these are all microcosms of the pontiff’s ultimate purpose.
For Catholics, the Pope’s meaning is deeper. He is a living, physical tie to days when Christ walked the Earth. To us, the Pope is the inheritor of the keys to the kingdom which Jesus handed to Peter long ago. (Mt. 16:13-20). The papacy is not just an inheritance of an office in the sense that Presidents succeed each other in office. Before they were Popes, they were bishops and priests, and every priest has been ordained by someone, who was ordained by someone, and so on, going back to Peter and to Jesus Himself.
The Bible recognizes the importance of lineage in establishing authority through genetic connections—again, perhaps suggesting the importance of our physical natures and especially our procreative mechanisms. Although we honestly tend to be bored by the genealogies (admit it—you tune them out at the Easter vigil mass), they served a legitimate function when the Biblical authors included them in the various books where they appear. The Book of Chronicles devotes an astonishing nine chapters to genealogy, ostensibly to firmly give the post-exilic Jewish peoples a connection to the great divine figures of their past—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Matthew borrowed this genealogical concept to show his Jewish audience that Jesus was firmly rooted in the Davidic line and fulfilled their messianic expectations. (Mt. 1:1-17). Finally, Luke used the genealogical tool to show that all human beings are in some degree of kinship with Jesus, and indeed, with each other, tracing his and everyone’s ancestry to our common patriarch of Adam. (Lk. 3:23-38).
For us Catholics, Pope Francis—really, any Pope, and any Priest—is a physical link back to Jesus Christ. In the same way we would get excited over meeting the relative of some famous historical figure, we recognize that our Pope is part of an unbroken line of sacramental, spiritual leadership that is linked back to Jesus through an unbroken line of succession. When we look upon the Pope, we are looking at a living continuum of Christ’s teaching authority on Earth, still active and undefeated after 2,000 years.
Finally, let’s consider the relative value of seeing a Pope in person. It’s great, isn’t it? We all want to have that Palm Sunday moment where we’re cheering and showing our adulation, because Francis honestly is a rock star in this moment. To have your diocese visited by Pope Francis—well, the only thing that could top that would be a visit by Jesus Christ himself, right?
Except, wait. That happens every Sunday.
If you’re a believing Catholic, then you accept that Jesus Himself becomes bodily present at the Mass every time the bread and wine is consecrated. If your parish has a tabernacle, then he’s sitting in there waiting to nourish the sick if needed. If it has Eucharistic adoration, then he’s waiting for your quiet devotion if you have an hour to spare. Of course, Jesus in his risen human body still waits in Heaven, and He will return in that form at the appointed hour. (Mt. 24:30).
But for now, Jesus comes to us in bread and wine that has been transformed into His real body and blood. It’s not exactly the same as having the risen Lord walk among us—the Eucharist never speaks or travels by any natural mechanisms. Still, we take His words to be true: this is His body and His blood, come down from Heaven to us. (Lk. 22:19-20).
We are human, and even the most devout of us suffers from concupiscence. As a result, the Eucharist can become routine. I suppose that if Pope Francis visited our diocese daily as well, we’d grow used to him and what’s a dramatic event would become “normal” very quickly. Our forgetfulness is why we have birthdays and annual celebrations and liturgical feasts, because we need that reminders that certain events matter.
Still, Pope Francis’s visit is an opportunity to reflect on whether we treat the real presence of Jesus as routine and therefore mundane. Shouldn’t we take that same adulation that we showed to Pope Francis and redirect it towards the Eucharist? Shouldn’t we show it more? While proper decorum keeps us from cheering at the Mass the way we cheered for the Papal parade, the sentiment should arguably be there in our hearts. If more people believed in their hearts what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist, our churches would be overflowing.
Our love for the Pope is real, and his ability to capture the hearts of a nation for a brief period is remarkable. It is, however, a shade of the love that is due to Jesus and the Trinity as a whole. Let us keep that joy burning in our hearts and direct it beyond this man to the God that he represents.
* – Ed. note. While the question of whether a possessive word ending in “s” should end with an apostrophe or an apostrophe-s is well settled for plural words, there is room for choice when is comes to proper words. Your editor prefers “‘s” and applied that choice throughout (just as we do with the em-space following a period).
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