Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood* has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:17-19.
With these words, Jesus appointed Saint Peter the first Pope. He knew that His new Church must have a leader and that the leader must have full authority to speak on His behalf. He gave Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
In the 21st century we may not get the full meaning of that gesture. Remember, in Jesus’ day cities were built inside walls. The walls had a gate to let people in and out, but when it came time to close the gate because the enemy was approaching, it was the Prime Minister, the King’s right-hand man, who had the key. Obviously this was a job that was vitally important. The PM decided who got in and who didn’t. So it was with Peter.
It would make no sense for Jesus to have given Peter the keys and not to have given them to his successors. If Jesus wanted His Church to last beyond Peter’s lifetime, it was necessary that his rights and responsibilities would be passed along to others. Of course, Peter’s successor today is Pope Benedict XVI, the 267th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Over more than 2,000 years there have been good Popes and not-so-good Popes. There have been scandalous Popes and at one time there were even three Popes. But one thing has never changed and never will. When it comes to matters of faith and morals the Pope has the ultimate authority and is protected by the Holy Spirit from making errors in these matters. We say the Pope is infallible.
That doesn’t mean the Pope can’t make a mistake. If the Pope says that Italy is going to win the World Cup, don’t mortgage your home and put all the money on the Italians. Soccer is not faith and morals and when Benedict predicts the outcome of a game, he has no better chance of being right than anyone else.
But when the Pope, in unity with his bishops, says that abortion is a sin, you can take that to the bank. And it’s worth noting that no future Pope is going to contradict him. That’s why such pronouncements are few and far between. In fact, the last time the Pope spoke ex cathedra (from the chair) was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary.
There are (at least) three things about the Pope that make it cool to be Catholic. One is that he is the direct descendant of Saint Peter in his role as Holy Father. Two is that our Church has a leader who has direct authority from Jesus Christ. When he speaks on faith and morals, we know that he’s speaking the truth.
The third thing about the Pope, and this is where the real coolness comes in, he’s recognized as an authoritative voice, even by non-Catholics. Jews, Muslims, protestants, even atheists recognize that when Benedict speaks, they ought to listen. When the Pope comes to town, leaders of all faiths and non-faiths line up to get an audience.
We’re blessed to belong to a Church with such a dynamic, authoritative leader. Whoever hears him, hears Jesus. Whatever he declares bound on earth is bound in heaven.
Having that kind of Holy Father is more than cool.
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