As we prepare to celebrate the Triduum of the Chair of St. Peter, we recall the significance of this feast. It commemorates that moment in Capernaum when Jesus built his Church upon the “rock”, the person of Peter, appointing him the leader of the apostolic college and his Vicar on earth. This apostolic authority is passed down in an unbroken line to every successor of St. Peter. The “chair” is the symbol of this papal authority.
Every Pope who sits in the Chair of St. Peter inherits this authority.
Today, the Vicar of Christ is Pope Francis. In a recently released book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald entitled, Benedict XVI: Last Testament in His Own Words, the Pope Emeritus meditated upon this papal continuity between himself and Pope Francis. I cite below a few of Seewald’s questions (in italics) and Pope Benedict’s responses which express his thought on this matter (pg 33 – 34).
Some commentators have interpreted this exhortation as a break, particularly because of its call for the decentralization of the Church. Do you detect a break from your Papacy in this programmatic text?
No. I, too, always wanted the local churches to be active in and of themselves, and not so dependent on extra help from Rome. So the strengthening of the local church is something very important. Although it is also always important that we all remain open to one another and to the Petrine Ministry – otherwise the Church becomes politicized, nationalized, culturally constricted. The exchange between the local and global church is extremely important. And I must say that, unfortunately, those very bishops who oppose decentralization are those who have been lacking in the kind of initiatives one might have expected of them. So we had to help them along again and again. Because the more fully and actively a local church itself truly lives from the centre of faith, the more it contributes to the larger whole.
It is not as though the whole Church were simply dictating to the local churches: what goes on in the local churches is decisive to the whole. When one member is diseased, says St Paul, all are. When, for example, Europe becomes poor in faith, then that is an illness for the others as well – and vice versa. If superstition or other things that should not occur there were to fall in upon another church, or even faithlessness, that would react upon the whole, inevitably. So an interplay is very important. We need the Petrine Ministry and the service of unity, and we need the responsibility of local churches.
So you do not see any kind of break with your pontificate?
No. I mean, one can of course misinterpret in places, with the intention of saying that everything has been turned on its head now. If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.
Now, after the present time in office of Pope Francis – are you content?
Yes. There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is certainly something beautiful.
Some have wondered about this issue, but perhaps the real culprit of confusion here is the media. They have sought to fashion Pope Francis according to their own image. If we take the time to carefully research Pope Francis’ entire body of teaching from official Vatican sources, we will be consoled to discover that Pope Benedict’s analysis of the situation is true: the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis is rooted in living continuity with his predecessors. The style and the emphasis are different, but the essence of apostolic teaching is preserved.
In any case, to help us appreciate the gift of the papacy, we are blessed to have the chair that Pope Francis used for some of his ceremonies in Philadelphia during his September, 2015 visit. It is a vivid reminder of the Chair of St. Peter itself, which we will celebrate zealously this week.
St. Peter, pray for us!
Fr. Tim Byerley