Have loose morals; change up the doctrine; get corrupted by power or money or both; become greedy for food, wine, and women – there are lots of ways to be a bad pope. Perhaps the worst period for popes was in the ninth and tenth centuries, when the papacy was shared around between some influential Roman families. One pope in the ninth century, who rejoiced in the name Stephen VI, had his dead predecessor dug up, then enthroned him in all his regalia, and put him on trial for perjury and politicking, before condemning him to be thrown into the Tiber. Another was Pope John XII in the tenth century, received the keys in his twenties – he had a set of appetites to match his youth. It’s said he lavished gifts on his mistress, mutilated and murdered his opponents, and got up to all kinds of palatial mischief until a man caught him in bed with his wife and did them both in. You name the commandment; a pope has broken it.
If the risk of getting a bad pope is so high, why do we expose ourselves to it? Why give one man such responsibility for us that we might end up with someone who is prone to tirades or tyranny? Surely, we might say, it’d be better to have some kind of parliamentary democracy. But which parliamentary democracy staves off the sins of its participants and fosters virtue? Certainly, none in Australia. And we know it’s so easy to stack an assembly with like-minded people. Make no mistakes: Church assemblies are political. If this was a parliamentary democracy, the first ever vote (on the Lord’s divine sonship) would have gone down 11-1.
We accept that there must be a pope as the visible head of the Church on earth, because we know that we are weak when we’re all together. We know that small voices of truth get drowned out by verbalised groupthink. We know that mob rule and peer pressure are real, and that Christians aren’t immune from these things, even with the best of intentions. We need someone to hold on to the truth, especially when no one else will. The papacy is a vital organ of the Church to keep us working well on the mission which Christ has given to us all, and that starts with his adherence to the truth about Christ.
Here at Caesarea Philippi, the Twelve are the furthest they will ever be from Jerusalem during the Lord’s earthly life. It’s the ultimate getaway. Deep in the north and far, therefore, from the power structures that surround the Temple, the Lord poses his question: Who do you say I am? There is no clue from his appearance as to who he is. He seems to be no more than a tradesman made wandering teacher, perhaps with his mother’s Galilean accent. The crowds whom the Lord has just miraculously fed didn’t get it. And there’s every chance that the Twelve won’t either. Their monotheism rightly makes them shy away from confessing any man as divine. The numerous pagan shrines which dot the landscape around Caesarea Philippi would only serve to heighten that pious reserve.
Peter blurts out his famous answer: his master is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It’s good that he did that, very good in fact, because he’s responding to revelation. He didn’t deduce Christ’s true identity as he himself witnesses. Somehow, unbeknownst to us, the Father disclosed to Peter by the Holy Spirit the presence of his Son on earth. We rejoice that Peter was, as this confession relates, brought into the life and joy of the Blessed Trinity – just long enough to get it right once and for all. Peter’s confession is an obedience to the Father, at once transparent and faithful; this is why Peter gets a special beatitude (“You are a happy man”), a name, and the keys: the Father made sure that someone, somewhere, indeed our first pastor, knew his Son for who he is and made him stand forth to confess him.
Our pope and the ones before him have been quite tame compared to some of their distant predecessors. Thank God for that, we may say. We must pray for Pope Francis: the media articles reporting on his health and speculating about his future are appearing with more regularity. We pray that the Holy Father will hold firm to what has been revealed by God of himself to us. We are taking a risk with him as with every other, but we know that if he is faithful to Christ, Christ will be faithful to him and through him to all of us.