Today, on the 22nd of October, the Universal Church has the great blessing of observing the newly added feast day of Saint John Paul II. He has been gone 11 years now, just over a decade, which may seem hard to believe. The 22nd of October was chosen as his feast day because it was the day, in 1978, of his official installation as pope, having been elected a week or so earlier on the 16th.
His election was a stunning surprise at the time, as many of you may recall. I grew up under his pontificate, and his witness and example were instrumental in leading me to the seminary, and I remember crying the day that he died, so formative had he been for me in my faith.
And I also rejoiced on the day when he was officially named a Saint because there was no question in my mind that indeed he was, and is one. Few figures have been so towering and influential in the past 100 years of Catholicism. Indeed, toward the end of his pontificate it was not uncommon for him to be referred to as a “rockstar pope.”
All that being said, now that we have some distance from his amazing pontificate, I have begun to realize that one unintended consequence of his time as pope that we need to confront as a Church (and this is not new), is how we have made something of an idol out of the papacy, and that our understanding of the authority and influence that one pope has is somewhat distorted.
Two things have brought me to this realization. For one, I have had the blessing in the last few months to study again a great deal of Church history, and to be reminded again of how delicate the interplay is between the doctrinal authority of major (and minor) Church Councils, and that of the popes.
Across the centuries, some very consistent lines of truth and teaching begin to emerge that transcend the shorter periods of theological controversy and confusion that we are always passing in and out of, some lasting many generations. While popes are important, they really are more at the service of our theological truths rather than being masters over it.
The second reality that has helped me to see this has been observing the reactions to Pope Francis, verses the reactions to Pope Benedict, verses the reactions to Pope John Paul II.
It has become clear that Pope Francis’ positions and style appeal to a different set of “camps” within the Church than was the case for the prior two Popes. To the point where many expectations for doctrinal and practical change are being placed upon Pope Francis that far exceed his authority or power to pull off. And in most cases, those expected changes are in opposition to the lived Catholicism of the prior two Popes. Some of the most “pro-papal” Catholics under Pope John Paul II have now become the most indifferent or even hostile to Pope Francis.
In part, this is a consequence of our moment in history, in the wake of majorly disruptive Church Council, in which we have made the papacy more of a change-agent than a preserver of doctrine. Saint John Paul II was such a mesmerizing focal point for the Church’s life, that his pontificate sewed in many of our minds the mistaken idea that popes have more power and influence than they actually do (or should).
That said, popes do exercise a great deal of authority that can, in our era of instant communication, profoundly impact the day to day shape of the Faith throughout the entire Church. These days it is more important than ever for us to place his voice in its proper historical and theological place.
The Church should not swing from pope to pope looking for the new doctrinal agendas of each new pope to win out. That is why we have Ecumenical Councils and major teaching pronouncements. The pope is an essential ingredient in the mix of those things, but he has very limited power over them.
At the heart of the papacy must be a certain humility about its necessary limitations, and we would do well to remember that fact if we find ourselves swooning over one pope verses another. It is not the pope who runs the Church. It is God. If God thinks in terms of centuries, we are wise to do so as well.