This blog post was inspired by a quote by Pete Buttigieg going around, “[T]he purpose of the Presidency is not to glorify the President, but to unify the American people.” What struck me was how easily it could be transposed into an ecclesiological context, specifically a post-Vatican II context.
The purpose of the papacy is not to glorify the pope;
but to unify the Christian people.
The first part is easiest to demonstrate. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Pope John XXIII being carried in to the opening of the Council, in all his pomp and circumstance, it’s easy to read that kind of thing as glorifying the person of the pope. I think of Pope John Paul I as the person who most clearly put an end to that kind of pomp: instead of a coronation, he was inaugurated by receiving a pallium, such as bishops receive when they are installed (albeit a special papal one). Since the council, much of the traditional papal regalia has been put away to be admired and studied, rather than used. Popes have gone out and travelled all over the world, face to face with thousands of ordinary Catholics. There’s still an aura of celebrity attached to the pope, but his public appearances are clearly more aligned with servant than with king.
Pope Francis has embodied this understanding of the papacy even more clearly: from the moment of his first appearance as pope, when his first action was to ask the assembled faithful to pray for him, in the words of the familiar prayers that every Catholic learns in childhood. Other striking moments early in his time as pope exemplify this as well: his choice to move out of the papal palace and live in Casa Santa Marta, among ordinary people; and his choice of a modest economy car to get around town. I was especially impressed, when he went out to say Mass at a local church, that he stood around outside the doors of the church before mass, greeting people as they arrived, just like an ordinary pastor.
The second part requires a bit more unpacking. “Unification” and “Christian people” are both doing a lot of work here when translated into an ecclesial register. Continue reading