Leading up to the stepping down of Pope Benedict XVI and the new Conclave, we hear a lot of media talk on the Pope and the various reactions people have to what the Pope stands for or for what he does not. The media and the movies rarely get it right about what it means to be the Pope or what is he there for. The longest standing institution in human history, the centre of western life and civilization which has held untold billions of people in it’s 2013 years of history and operating in its own culture, Papacy is an immensely complicated subject and not surprisingly, the most misunderstood office on earth.
So here's a short photo essay on the office of the man who carries one of the most awesome burdens borne by any leader – the spiritual care of more than one billion people – how did it start, who instituted it and brief glimpses of it’s history.
There is a dramatic scene in the Gospel of Matthew at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus puts the Apostles in a spot by asking: “Who do you say I am?” Peter steps up at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and ackowledges Him: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Lord turns to him and says: "And I say to thee: That you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16: 18). The word Jesus used in the original Aramaic for Peter and rock is one and the same – “Cepha”. This is the Biblical foundation of the institution of Papacy by Christ Himself. He teaches that in the future the Church will be the body of those who acknowledge Him, and that this Church will be built on Peter.
Tradition had always maintained St. Peter's Basilica was built on the Vatican hills where Peter was originally buried. But besides anecdotal evidence the church didn't have any proof of it and over the centuries, the site of the tomb had all been but lost. In 1939 however, workmen who were digging the vatican grave to bury Pope Pius XI accidentally discovered parts an aincient structure (Inset 1). Some of the finds which turned up were so invaluable for archelogists, thay requested to excavate further. But it was not until 1941 Pope Pius XII allowed archeological excavations under the Basilica. The discovery was astounding - within a chamber Constantine had built in marble, which lay about 33 feet exacly below the Papal high altar of the Basilica the excavators found the bones of an old but robust built man.
"And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mt 16: 18). Jesus teaches us that it is through her union with Peter, that the Church will emerge victorious in her long battle with the evil one. This verse is also one of the Sriptural foundation of Christ’s insurance to the Papacy from error when pronouncing defenitive moral teachings (Dogmas). Even when there were immoral or materialistic Popes, history bears witness to the Papal infalliblilty granted by Christ, by the fact over the centuries the Church never had to revoke a single proclaimed Dogma.
"And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 16:19). In all countries the key is the symbol of authority. So Christ's words are a promise that He will confer on Peter supreme power to govern the Church. Peter is to be His Vicar on earth, to rule in His place. Blessed John Newman says "In questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ's flock."
True to the prophecy of Christ, we have today, from the time of Peter, an unbroken liniage of 266 Popes in the last 2013 years, a complete list of which may be viewed here with links to a biographical essay on each one. While reading through the lives of these men who have included scholars, princes, generals and ordinary men, we are struck by how much opposition they had to go through the centuries and sometimes how, their own misdeeds have rocked the church so precariously. The Church, says G. K. Chesterton “has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”