Much has been said by many who have voiced their opinions about what qualities will be needed in our new pope. After all is said and done, I simply place my trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the cardinal-electors in the conclave to choose wisely in accord with God's will.
More important for our immediate consideration is our understanding of the qualities needed by us in relation to the pope and our attitude toward the new Holy Father, whoever he may be. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides helpful instruction in this regard.
The Petrine office, as the ministry of the successor of St. Peter is called, is described in paragraph 881 of the Catechism: "The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the 'rock' of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope."
As successor of St. Peter, the pope then is the rock of the Lord's church and shepherd of Christ's flock together with the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, in union with the pope and under his primacy. The keys represent the power of binding and loosing, which refers to the power to forgive sins as well as to govern the church. This power is shared by the bishops who are united to the pope as the head of the college of bishops.
Paragraphs 882-883 of the Catechism teach that, "The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff."
This definition of the papacy stresses the importance of the pope's role in preserving the unity of the church. The importance of the pope's role as "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful" can be seen in contrast to the chaos and disunity of other religious faiths and denominations, which do not have a visible center of unity and authority such as the pope.
The notion of papal infallibility is often misunderstood and therefore warrants our consideration. The Catechism, in paragraphs 889-892, states, "In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility ... . The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals."
It should be noted that this infallibility does not belong exclusively to the pope. The body of bishops shares in this infallibility when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise what is called "the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine for belief as being divinely revealed, and as the teaching of Christ, all the Christian faithful must adhere to these definitions "with the obedience of faith."
Not all teachings of the pope and bishops are infallible. In some cases the bishops as the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing it in a "definitive manner." To this ordinary teaching the faithful are to adhere "with religious assent which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it."
It would be good for all of us to reflect on our obligations in relation to the pope and the bishops, since, just as the flock needs a courageous and faithful shepherd, so the shepherd needs an obedient and faithful flock.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Times, official newspaper for the diocese of Springfield.
Most Rev. Thomas John Paprocki is the Bishop of the diocese of Springfield, Illinois.