By Obienyem Valentine
The greatest institution in the entire world is the Catholic Church. Her greatness often leads so many people to develop interest in her. Once you talk about the Church, you are invariably talking about the Papacy, that is, the system of government of the Catholic Church with Pope as the head. But who on this earth can, with his finite brain, comprehend exhaustively the phenomena of the Pope and of the church. Many claims are made, many points are raised, many objections are put forward but the question about the papacy remains not adequately answered. This piece wishes to lend its voice to the awe-inspiring institution of the papacy, taking cognisance of its foundation, structure, problems, achievements and shortcomings; and contemporary papacy as embodied in the Popes of 20th/21st centuries. These are the current questions, following the notice of resignation by Pope Benedict XVI. Very soon, the issue of who succeeds the pope will occupy the front burner and many questions will be asked about the papacy.
Foundation of Papacy
Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is the invisible head of their Church, which, according to them, He founded. Christ, the logic goes forth, by the nature of His mission on earth could not stay ad infinitum and, therefore, founded an authority to represent Him on earth. Thus Christ, some believe, established the office of the Pope when He said to Simon, who was also called Peter, or the Rock. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Later in the gospel of John (Jn.21:15-17), Christ brought out Peter’s position more vividly. Having called him three times, Christ gave him the jurisdiction of a supreme shepherd and ruler over the whole flock, thus making him the first Pope. Did Peter justify this position?
How far St. Peter carried on the flock of Christ could be seen in his activities. He was always at the head of the apostles and named first whenever the names of the twelve were mentioned. During the Council of Jerusalem (A.D.47), which deliberated on the propriety or otherwise of admitting the Gentiles into the Church, Peter presided. When St. Mathias was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, Peter was the spokesman. During the Pentecost, it was Peter that addressed the men of Judea and all who dwelt in Jerusalem on behalf of the apostles. During the condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter was at the forefront.
By all indications, Peter’s leadership was accepted by the early Church. Faithful to Peter as the first Pope, the early Church continued to grow amidst many obstacles that even surpassed what the Church is experiencing today.
The nascent Church, existing first in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, as described in Acts of the Apostles, soon found its focal point in the capital of the Roman Empire, a centre, which has remained to this day. The testimony of Peter’s residence in Rome is so abundant that renowned pagan and protestant historian, Whiston, attest to that. He says the evidence “is so clear to Christians antiquity that it is a shame for any protestant to confess that any protestant ever denied it.”
Prior to his pontificate at Rome from A.D. 42-A.D. 67, Peter was the first Bishop of Antioch in Syria. He was martyred in Rome with St. Paul during the reign of Emperor Nero. According to tradition, Peter was buried under what later became the site of St. Peter’s Church in Vatican City.
It is almost two thousand years since Christ ascended to heaven. Thus the Catholic Church and the Papacy have existed for almost 2000 years. During these times, other institutions that started with the Papacy have all fallen. This, to some, is an indication and indeed the fulfillment of Christ’s word that He would be with the Church till the end of the time. This divine assistance has made the Church and the Papacy to rise above the human weaknesses of her members and to live and bury those organisations and institutions that once threatened her.
This long existence of the Papacy (2, 000 years) should and have produced many remarkable innovations and modifications. Many titles are now used for the Pope; many offices, congregations and tribunals have been created to help the Pope in administering the Church; dogmas are continuously being defined (not invested) to meet the changing world; more dignified way of electing the Pope has been adopted after many centuries of trials and errors; so many advancements that were St. Peter to come back to the world today, he would scarcely recognise the Papacy. If, in a sudden cataclysmic destruction of all institutions in the world, mankind were advised to name one institution for preservation, they would choose the Papacy. When I see it, I imagine I see grandeur in person. As we marvel at this marvelous institution, let us see its structure and operation.
The structure and operation of the papacy
We have to “dismantle” the Papacy before we can comprehend its structure. This cannot be done without the knowledge of the Vatican City. During the struggle for unification of Italy, from 1848 to 1870, all Papal states were forcefully taken from the Church by the state. Having no standing army, the Pope was helpless. As a protest, Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) and three of his successors, in the next 60 years, made themselves voluntary prisoners of the Vatican.
In 1929, Pope Pius XI (1857 – 1939) and the Italian government, led by Benito Mussolini, settled the 60-year-old dispute between the Church and the state with two historic documents – The Lateran Treaty and The Concordant. The former gave the Pope full sovereignty over Vatican City while the later dealt with relations between the Vatican and Italy. These documents, having been signed, Pope Pius XI emerged from the Vatican and entered St. Peter’s Square in a huge procession witnessed by about 250,000 persons. His appearance signaled the triumph of the Church.
Justifying its sovereignty, Vatican City has its own Pope’s yellow and white banner as the official state flag, automatic licence plates, postage stamps and coins. It maintains its own public works: mail and telephone systems, water supply and lighting and street-cleaning services. Vatican has its own bank, a large printing plant, and a rarely occupied jail (use for something else now). Vatican does not have an army or navy capable of fighting a war. But it does have its own “Armed Forces”. The most famous are the Swiss Guards, who protect the Pope and serve as sentries. Other armed forces include the Noble Guards (body guards and escorts of the Pope); the Palatine Guard (the Pope’s militia) and the Pontifical Gendarmerie (the Pope’s Police Force).
In addition to L’osservatore Romano, the most influential Vatican daily newspaper; it also publishes Osservatore della Domenica, a weekly publication; and the Acta Apostolican Sedis, which prints official Church documents. The Vatican Radio transmits Papal message in more than 40 languages, including Latin.
Most importantly, the Pope sends and receives diplomats from other countries. Papal Ambassadors and Envoys are called Legates. Legates of high position are called Nuncios and those of lesser positions Internuncios. All Bishops submit to supervision of their affairs by Legates of the Pope. The Pope’s seat of authority is called the Apostolic See or the Holy See.
Pope’s functions are mostly spiritual. Whenever he speaks Ex Cathedra, that is, in his position as the head of the Church on matters, concerning morals and faith, he is said to be infallible. Besides, he is as gullible as the man next door. The Pope has the sole function of beatifying and canonising saints. He appoints and deposes bishops; he creates dioceses and approves new religious orders. Whenever the Pope wishes, he may call an ecumenical council or a general conference of the Church to help him decide on Church affairs.
In carrying out his temporal and spiritual functions, the Pope is aided by numerous Congregations, Tribunals, and Offices in Rome. All these make up the Curia. The Congregations have executive authority; the Tribunals exercise judicial powers; and Offices perform ministerial duties. The heads of most of these units have the rank of Cardinal.
In the Roman Curia, many offices are distinguished; some of them are the Apostolic Chancery – this office sends Papal documents to dioceses throughout the world; The Apostolic Datary – the office examines candidates for Papal benefices; The Apostolic Camera – this office is concerned with temporal goods and rights of the Holy See; The Secretariat of State – this office handles special matters, including the relationship of Holy see and civil governments; and the Secretariat of Briefs and Latin Letters – this office prepares letters to civil rulers and puts Papal documents into its official Latin form.
There are many titles with which the Pope is known. All of these titles point out to his position as the Primus inter pares among other bishops. His full titles are legion: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province and Sovereign of the State of Vatican City. He is addressed as “Your Holiness” or “The Holy Father” but the Pope speaks of himself in official documents as “Servant of the Servants of God.” (Servus servorum Dei).
The clothes of the Pope are similar to those of his brother bishops in style and colour, mostly white. His shoes are low, open and red in colour with cross on the front of each. His pallium, which is a band of wool embroidered with crosses, shows his rank as an archbishop. Pope’s jewels include a pontifical ring, which is known as the fisherman’s ring.
Very important in the lives of Popes is the Sacred College, also called the College of Cardinals. This body acts as advisers to the Pope. The Pope, in the spirit of apostleship, asks for their advice whenever needed. He meets with them officially in the Consistories. Consistories could be secret, semi-secret or public.
In secret Consistories, the Pope meets with his Cardinals. It is there that new Cardinals are named. Pope gives the new Cardinals their sapphire rings as a symbol of their offices. If a Cardinal comes from a far country, the Pope assigns him an honorary position as the head of a diocese in Italy. At secret Consistories, the Pope appoints Cardinal Camerlengo, i.e. Chancellor of the Catholic Church. In semi-public Consistories, the Pope, Cardinals and Bishops meet. This Consistory discusses candidates for beatification and canonisation. In public Consistory, church officials and dignitaries could be invited.
The major function of the College of Cardinals is the election of a new Pope. When a Pope dies, a member of the college must verify his death. He touches the forehead of the Pope thrice with a silver mallet and calls him by his baptismal name. He then announces that “the Pope is truly dead”. In the interim, the Sacred College takes over his functions. Though we have had Popes that resigned in the past, it was essentially due to one problem or another, including the era of anti Popes. With the resignation of the present Pope, it is imperative that before the date it will take effect, he would have named what the formula will be.
During the election of a new Pope, the College of Cardinals is known as “The Conclave”. While in the conclave, the Cardinals severe any relationship with the outside world. On the day of the election, mass of the Holy Ghost is celebrated for guidance in decision. The actual voting takes place in the Sistine chapel (erected in the palace of the Vatican by Pope Sixtus IV in 1473).
The Conclave begins between the 15th and 18th day after the death of the Pope. After voting, if a new Pope is not elected, the scrutinies (ballots) are burnt with a mixture of straw) to produce black smoke. When eventually a Pope is elected, the straw is burnt alone to produce white smoke. Then, outsiders will shout “Viva il papa” (“Long live the Pope”). The Cardinals will then pay their first homage to the Pope-elect. The senior Cardinal deacon will then step out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Church and announces to the people in Latin, Habemus Papam (“We have a Pope”). The Pope makes his first appearance and gives his blessing, “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and to the World).
The Pope-elect chooses a day and a place for his installation – they have often chosen St. Peter’s Church. On that day, the Pope is carried in a portable throne in a procession from the Vatican to Saint Peter. After the mass, a three-tiered crown is placed on the Pope’s head. He then gives his blessing. The cardinals will pay a second homage.
However, in 1978, Pope Paul I eliminated many of this traditional ceremonies. He walked in the procession and chose to have a pallium placed over his shoulders, symbolising his pastoral responsibilities as the head of the Church. Later, Pope John Paul II followed this Pauline example.
The foregoing represents the operation of the papacy, so terribly organised. In fact, if art were the organisation of government, the Papacy is the most imposing masterpiece in history. This does not mean that the papacy is trouble-free. It has its own plenty share of troubles amidst many achievements.
Troubles and achievements
It is said, often with some truth, the beginning of anything is usually difficult, thus the early Church and Popes faced monumental obstacles. In these trials, they were mettlesome enough. Almost all of them faced the opposition against the Church with heroic faith.
Since Roman Emperors were pagans, they tried to exterminate the nascent Christianity at all cost. It was so intense that in A.D. 67, Emperor Nero killed St. Peter and St. Paul. When Rome burnt (A.D. 64 – 65), Nero accused and persecuted Christians. In A.D. 96, Emperor Domitan tried to surpass the records of Nero by his brutal killing of Christians. Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303, February 23, published a general edict, ordering the destruction of Christian Churches and writings and reduced Christians to slave status. The list of hostility, if one wishes, could go on. ad-infinitum
A turning point was, however, recorded in A.D. 314. With the help of his mother, St. Helena, Pope Sylvester (314-325) converted Constantine to Christianity. As a postscript, he initiated the transformation of pagan Rome into a Christian state. Constantine stopped the crucifixion and breaking of leg in Roman Empire (A.D. 315) and declined to celebrate the Ludi Saeculares at Rome because of their pegan association (A.D. 314). He exempted the clergy of Roman Empire from taxation (A.D. 315) and recognised the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts (A.D. 318). Constantine forbade magic (A.D. 320) and heretical gatherings and divorce (A.D. 331).
The culminating act of his conversion was the building of the first St. Peter’s Basilica above the crypt (tomb) of St. Peter in 325. The modern St. Peter’s Basilica was, however, started in 1506 by Pope Julius II and dedicated in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII. Pope Alexander VII (1655 – 1667) was to erect the magnificent colonnade of the plaza at St. Peter.
Another unpleasant task of ecclesiastical organisation under the Popes was to prevent a fragmentation of the Church through the multiplication of heresies, i.e. doctrines contrary to the conciliar definitions of the Church creed. These heresies almost always rose in an East that had inherited the Greek passion for defining the infinite. It has always been resolved through different Councils convoked to examine specific heresies otherwise known as General or Ecumenical Councils. The first council was that of Jerusalem chaired by the first Pope, St. Peter.
Then in A.D. 318, Arius, a Libyan Priest, startled the whole world by his denial of the Holy Trinity. Christians hold Christ to be so identical in being with God (homoousious); Arius considered Him only similar in being (homoiousis). In A.D. 321, Arius was excommunicated. With the help of Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Athanasius (later Bishop of Alexandria) and the support of Pope Sylvester I, the Nicene Council was called. The Council re-affirmed the Trinity and gave us the Nicene Creed, which summarises the chief articles of the Christian faith.
At this point, Nestorious, Bishop of Contantinople, entered the heretic scene. According to the church, Christ was God, and Mary was “Theotokos”, God-bearing, the mother of God. Nestorius thought the term too strong. Mary, he said, was the mother only of the human, not of the divine, nature of Christ.
In 429, St Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, repudiated Nestorius. Pope Celestine I (422 – 432), stirred by a letter from Cyril, called a Council at Rome (A.D. 430). The Council demanded Nestorius to retract; he refused. Finally the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) re-affirmed that Mary was the mother of the incarnate Logos or word of God, containing both the divine and the human nature of Christ. The same Pope Celestine I sent St. Patrick to convert Ireland to Christianity, a task he masterfully accomplished.
Eutyches, head of a Monastery near Constantinople, announced the last great heresy of this turbulent period and the most momentous in result. In Christ, said Eutychus, there were not two natures, human and divine; there was only the divine. The Council of Chalcedom (451), under Pope Leo I, condemned this “monophysite” heresy and reaffirmed the double nature of Christ.
In between the above heresies, many other heresies had at a point threatened the Church. There was the Albigensian heresy. This heresy derived its name from the city of Albi; they rejected the Holy Trinity and believed that Christ was not the son of God but an archangel, who came to earth as an apparition or illusion. Pope Innocent III fought them to a standstill in 1208.
In 787, Pope Adrian I condemned the heresy of Adoptionism, whose exponents held that Christ, as man, was the adopted but not the natural Son of God. The Pope, in 787, presided through his delegates over the second Council of Nicene, which condemned Adoptionism and Inconoclasm.
We cannot point out all the heresies that agitated the Church in her history. In addition to those mentioned, we have the Apollinarians, Saballians, Manichism, Paulinians, Bogomiles, Pelagianism, Massalians, Priscillinists and heresies propagated by current commercial churches. Added to these heresies, there were additional problems created by differences between the Latin Church and the Eastern Church.
The Church, despite its many problems and heretics, attacking her was united until after the first 800 years when a major schism began to separate the Church at Rome and the Church at Constantinpole, now at Istabul. The causes of this schism were many and its result momentous.
First there was communication problem created by differences in language, liturgy and doctrines. Greek Liturgy, ecclesiastical vestments, vessels and ornaments were more complex, ornate and artistically wrought than those of the West; the Greek cross had equal arms; the Greeks prayed standing, the Latin kneeling; the Greek baptised by immersion, the Latin by aspersion and/or immersion; marriage was forbidden to Latin priests but permitted to Greek priests; Latin priests shaved, Greek priests had contemplative beards. These differences and many other disagreements led to the excommunication of Photius in A.D. 863 by Pope Nicholas and Photius excommunicated the Pope in A.D. 867. In Leo’s pontificate, Greek and Latin Churches were finally divorced (1054). The excommunication was removed in 1965, when patriarch Athenagoras visited the Pope in Rome. There was a follow up to their earlier visit (1964) in Jerusalem, the first meeting in 500 years.
In 1300 the papacy suffered two major setbacks: The era of “antipopes” and the “Babylonian Captivity”. In 1305 through influence of king Philip of France, a French Archbishop was elected and crowned at Lyon, as Pope Clement V. Clement moved the papal court from Rome to Avigon in 1309. The papacy remained in France during the reign of seven Popes and this greatly reduced the prestige of the Papacy. This period was known as “Babylonian Captivity”; it ended in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI returned the Papal throne to Rome.
This development made the Papacy to be a subject of intense rivalry among Catholic countries. Unfortunately, it degenerated into the era of rival Popes, in other words, known as “anti-popes.” An anti-pope was he, who has been improperly elected a pope. He sets himself in opposition to the pope, who has been regularly chosen in accordance with canon law. The first anti-pope usually noted was Hippolytus; the last anti-pope was Felix. This schism divided the church for almost 60 years. As if the Church was recovering from it; subsequent popes posed a problem to the Church. Having obtained their election by bribe, they lived shamefully.
This was exemplified in the pontificate of Alexander VI. Alexander involved himself in the political maneuvering, which characterised Italy of 1492-1503. The career of Alexander VI and some other Popes of the era demonstrated that they were typical Renaissance Princes occupied with Italian politics often to the neglect of their spiritual duties, thus bringing disgrace to the Church and the Papacy into disrepute.
As an aftermath of this degenerative Papacy, many Church leaders cried out for reforms. These cries continued unheeded until Martin Luther came forth. Though Erasmus was accused of having laid the egg that Luther hatched but he was more civilised as opposed to the rudeness of Luther. Luther was a Catholic Priest and a monk. In his 95 theses, he denounced many things in the Church, especially the indulgence. But let it be said here that even before Luther, Pope Boniface IX in 1392, Martin V in 1420 and Sixtus IV in 1478 had repeatedly condemned the misconception and abuses of indulgence. Luther’s concerns were legitimate. Some believed that his way of going about it was wrong, others believed otherwise. This debate continues.
In response to this protestant reformation, the Church called the Council of Trent, which met from 1545-1563. This Council re-affirmed the Catholic doctrines.
It needs to be said and I do hereby say it that the personal immoralities of priests or popes do not nullify the divine character of the Church, the purity of its doctrines or the graces and spiritual powers it transmits.
The final major offensive against the papacy was the madness of Napoleon Bonaparte. He forcefully annexed the Papal States in 1809. The Congress of Vienna restored this in 1815 under the protection of Austria. During the struggle for unification in Italy, all the papal provinces were confiscated but in 1929 the Vatican City was granted independence: this ushered in the era of the modern papacy.
The contemporary Papacy
In the 1900’s, the papacy enjoyed a high prestige and influence. With the independence of the Vatican, the popes concern themselves with moral and social issues of the day. Pius X, who became Pope in 1903, worked hard to keep peace in Europe. He was shocked by the outbreak of World War II in 1914.
Like Pius X, Pius XII, who succeeded him, worked tirelessly for peace during the World War II; this brought him worldwide acclaim. Pope John XXIII, known as the “rotund” Pope, succeeded him in 1958 and called the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962. This is the 21st council in the history of Christianity. This Council made changes in the Church and was completed under Pope Paul VI, who succeeded him in 1966.
Paul travelled widely. He was the first Pope to visit the Holy land, the U.S. and South America. In 1978, he died and Pope Paul I succeeded him. After 34 days, he died and Pope John Paul II succeeded him. A year of three Popes!
We must not refuse this Pope the credit of having brought the Church to her greatest height and had never relented in his task of realisation of a moral state. He was one of the ablest Church leaders in Church history. He pursued his aims with vision, devotion, inflexible persistence and unbelievable energy.
The Pope gave himself so unremittingly to the problems of humanity that he looked physically exhausted, weighed down by the suffering of humanity. He waged war against abortion, euthanasia and oppression with unquestionable sincerity and heroic devotion. He was called a mobile Pope because he travelled widely as part of evangelisation with his message of love, reconciliation, charity and peace. These, among other things, made him the most cherished visitor wherever he visited. The Pope had some physical comeliness and spiritual magnetism that attracted millions of people wherever he visited. He remained a spiritual lion even until he died on April 2, 2005, mildly like a ripe pawpaw from its tree.
Contemplating his achievements, we marvel at the prestige he brought to the papacy, Catholic Church and Christianity. He renewed our faith in the future possibilities of the Church as indispensable to the moral health of humanity. We can always call him, without tongue-in-check, the very representative of Christ. It is a challenge to the Catholic Church to keep on producing Popes like him in future, thank God that the present Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, is leading the Church along the parts of holiness.
Watching the actions of Pope Benedict XVI, one noticed that he is not after personal glory. He does his job as the Representative of Christ. In his apostolate, he keeps making reference to the work of his predecessor without any tinge of jealousness.
Presently, there appears to be organised war against the Catholic Church and we are happy the manner the present Pope has handles it. The war is hinged on clerical celibacy, ordination of women, same-sex marriage, abortion and many other contentious issues. If the Church is truth, it would have to maintain the teachings of God and not swing with the changing times. The moment the Church starts saying because majority of the people are clamouring for this or that, let us change the divine truth, it will do more harm to her.
Expectedly form today, till February 28, when the Pope’s resignation will take effect, we shall witness a lot. the See of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome (Pope) will be declared vacant (Sede Vacante).
Normally, with the death of the Pope, all heads of Roman Curia resign except Cardinal Camerlengo and Major Penitentiary. Will it apply in this case? Will the Coat of Arms of the Holy See change form from the normal Papal tiara to Umbraculum? These questions will soon be answered.
•Valentine Obienyem wrote from Awka