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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

April 7, 2008

Fielding Questions About the Pope

When Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church steps off the plane in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, April 15, thousands of Americans – Catholics and non-Catholics alike — will cheer. Cameras will be flashing. Television camera people will be elbowing and pushing to get the best footage.

For at least five days, the German-born pontiff will be front-page news in the U.S. He will celebrate his 81st birthday (on April 16) and the third anniversary of his election as pope (on April 18) during his first visit to the U.S. as pope.

Why is the pope’s visit such big news?

As most Americans know, the pope is a religious leader with great international and spiritual influence. Every pope is the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church until his death. Today, the worldwide Catholic population represents 17.2% of the world’s population. In the United States, there are 64.4 million Catholics. Catholics represent 22 % of the total U.S. population. That’s one in every five Americans.

During Pope Benedict’s visit, however, questions about the role of the pope may arise in many of your students. Their vision of the Catholic Church is typically limited to their own parish and perhaps their diocese. Even non-Catholic friends of your students may be asking your students, “Why do Catholics even need a pope?” “Shouldn’t Catholics elect their popes?” “Do Catholics have to obey everything the pope says?“” What does it mean when ” . . . .

When Jesus was about to die, he gave Peter a special role in his developing Church. Providing leadership for his Church was Christ’s greatest concern. Matthew’s tells how Jesus chose Peter in Mt 16:18-19. Catholic apologists say that this passage is the primary defense for the papacy and the continuing line of popes.

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Other theologians point out that Peter was the first disciple called and the first one sent to preach the Good News about Jesus. It was Peter’s name that was always mentioned first in a listing or naming of the apostles. Peter was also the only apostle whose name was changed to complement his changed status. “Simon” became “Peter” a word that means “rock.”
And so, from about 33 C.E., there was a leader among Christ’s closest followers, a chief shepherd for his flock. Peter himself was executed on a cross in Rome about the year 64 C.E. Still remembering his betrayal of Jesus, he asked to be crucified upside down. He was not worthy, he said, to die in the same way as his Lord. In the first few Christian centuries, many of the early popes were martyred for their faith.

More information about why Catholics would rely on a pope is found in the text The Church: Our Story:

In order to answer this question, we must complete a circle and return to the first mark of the Church—its oneness. The pope is the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.” As Catholics we believe that without the pope the unity of the Church would be severely threatened by local churches and bishops addressing competing national and cultural issues. There have been many times in the history of the Church when such national issues did seem to compromise the unity and universal nature of the Church. In some of these instances, the personal, national ties of the reigning pope have contributed to the problem, yet the formal institution of the papacy has always stood for a unity which supersedes these ties. Even after the most troublesome periods of Church history, because of its institution by Christ, the papacy has always been maintained as an institution that is not subject to any one nation or culture, and as an institution that draws us into a unity which goes beyond national and cultural boundaries. As the successor of Saint Peter and head of the college of bishops, the pope is the pastor who watches over the whole Church and each of its members throughout the world.

Each diocese or “local church” is led by its own bishop who has also been established by the Holy Spirit. This bishop has the primary responsibility for interpreting and handing on the apostolic tradition within his own diocese and also for keeping his diocese united to the universal Church.21 Each bishop must adapt the Church’s teachings to the particular culture and particular needs of his own diocese. Yet when these necessary and lawful adaptations are made, it is important that the unity of the Church be maintained. The fidelity of each individual bishop, and of all of the bishops together, to the bishop of Rome (the pope) helps ensure that unity is not lost.

The role of the pope is not limited to the preservation of the Church’s unity. The pope also has the task of giving voice to the universal mission and vocation of the Church. The pope calls Catholics everywhere to remember their responsibility to all of God’s people and not just those in their immediate vicinity. The pope also calls Catholics everywhere to remember that there are certain Church teachings which cannot be adapted to suit the local culture. There are issues—such as the protection of the rights of the most defenseless—that are fundamental to the universal vocation of the Church; they must not be ignored or denied by any who wish to call themselves Catholic.

Study Questions
ß How is the Church faithful to its apostolic nature?
ß What historical circumstances led to the Church’s emphasis on apostolic succession?
ß What is the role of the pope?

Journal Assignment
ß Write a letter to your local bishop. Describe your faith in God and the Church. Tell him some of the plans you have for your life.

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