Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 25, 2013

But Why a Pope?

As the process for selecting a new pope gets underway and the cardinals gather for the conclave, your students may want to consider the question of why the Catholic Church has a pope. Here is a brief explanation from the textbook The Church Our Story: Catholic Tradition, Mission, and Practices:

Why the Catholic Church has a Pope

Many who accept the value of apostolic succession still question why Catholics would rely so heavily on the pope.

In order to answer this question, we must look at 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” (Lumen Gentium, 23). 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. 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.

Enrichment

  • For more information, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 936-937

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