And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
– Matthew 16:18
“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. Peter. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
– G.K. Chesterton
The 266th Pope. The Vicar of Christ. The Bishop of Rome. The Shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church. Within hours (or days), one aged man will fill these roles in their entirety. And on the eve of Conclave, it is difficult not to anxiously anticipate the Spirit-filled deliberation of a band of cardinals nestled in Michelangelo’s surreal and sacred Sistine Chapel. Indeed, a thousand-year-old process has already captivated the world. And in a beautifully archaic and poetic fashion that gently chides impatient and high-tech modernity, the answer will come to us, not by email, text, or tweet, but rather in a rich plume of white smoke.
As Conclave unfolds, Rome generally and the Vatican specifically have endured a deluge of pilgrims and “papa”-razzi, an onslaught of marketing for papal memorabilia, and a relentless din of chattering analysts with “inside information”. It seems that everyone has a prized candidate (papabile), a pet issue, or a proposed reform. And the media, who have incessantly declared Catholicism and the Pope disconnected, outdated, and irrelevant, have been the first to dispatch their premier journalists to the Vatican for breathless coverage until the time inevitably arrives to criticize once again.
But perhaps what gets lost in the flurry surrounding the choice for Pope, is the most vital role this man will play: The Heir to Peter. What does this mean? It means that in spite of the unparalleled prominence and moral influence the Pope has as an international spiritual leader, the intricate mechanisms of religious and political governance the Pope has at his disposal, and the staggering works of art and architecture that surround him at the Vatican…the Pope is, quite simply, the Heir to Peter – the favored disciple of Christ. Who was Peter? A fisherman. A roughly schooled tradesman. A figure of fiery emotions who, at times, had his head in the clouds and his foot in his mouth. A man who professed undying loyalty to Christ only to betray Him – not once, but three times – in His hour of need. In a word, the Pope is the Heir to a failure. A pathetic, frustrating failure. Peter even told Christ, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8). Yet, in spite of Peter’s self-confessed and readily apparent fallibility, Christ knew him and loved him. He looked at Peter in his honesty and earnestness and saw what parents see in their own child: a beautiful, dignified creation that can never be devalued by any shortcoming. And in Peter’s ultimate repentance and halting steps following Christ, he would be entrusted with the keys to Heaven. Peter would indeed be the Rock upon which the Church would be built. And at last, after a life of preaching, writing, and suffering for Christ, Peter would die crucified upside-down. He had chosen his inverted fate insisting he was unworthy to die like Christ.
The Catholic Church is extraordinary for many reasons, but on the eve of Conclave – on the eve of the selection of the Heir to Peter – I find the Church especially profound because it is a faith fundamentally comprised of Peters. It is a faith of underdogs. A faith of unlikely heroes. A faith of tax-collectors and prostitutes, lepers and cowards, slaves and shepherd boys. Yes, it is a faith of sinners…but it is a faith of sinners who know their utter and abject dependence on a merciful and loving God. And paradoxically, unexpectedly and miraculously, in our weakness we are made strong. The Source of strength eclipses the maladies that weaken us. In the end, relying on Christ is the strongest one could ever hope to be in this world of sorrow, disappointment and misery. And the Church knows and teaches this.
We all have a bit of Peter in us. In each of us is a coward who learned to be brave, a fool who gained some wisdom, a disappointment who found redemption. Peter matters. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us to a very wise, but very human Heir to Peter.