I’ve been following the Pope for some time now, beginning around the election of Pope Benedict XVI. This is around the same time a certain Catholic priest started podcasting from the Vatican—a podcast I would later discover, a podcast that would soften my heart and open my eyes to the world of Catholicism.
I can remember, at the election of Pope Benedict, watching and rewatching Habemus Papam video on YouTube. Even as a Protestant with, then, only a passing interest in the Catholic Church, sensing something incredible in the moment when a new Pope is elected, and it’s announced to the world from a balcony over-looking St. Peter’s Square.
Following Pope Francis’s trip to Asia this weekend reminded me, again, of why I love the institution of the Pope and why, if God is merciful, and loving and, in my opinion, who He says He is, the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, is wonderful and beautiful.
One of the roles, indeed one of the titles of the Pope, is the Vicar of Christ. I love this and I’ve said it before but it bears repeating from, at least, a slightly different angle and I’ll tell you why.
This weekend I watched as Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop on his tour of the Philippines to visit a shelter for homeless orphans. Apparently, these children and their caregivers had been praying that, somehow, the Pope would stop by to visit them in their destitution. Somehow, in an answer to these prayers, he did.
What unfolded was beautiful and magical and something to rival much of the tear-jerking link bait you’d find on social media.
But this was different than your run-of-the-mill link bait. This was profoundly different than a kind and thoughtful gesture by a kind and thoughtful grandfatherly figure. For the Catholic, this is something profoundly powerful.
I’ve come to believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. If Christ is the King (and I believe that He is) then the Pope, I believe, is his Prime Minister, his representative, his vicar. The Pope stands in for the Head of the Church, who is Jesus. The Pope points the way to Christ.
In this role, the Pope made his stop and visited the orphans at the homeless shelter. The Pope came in place of Christ.
As a Protestant I’ve done missionary work before. In the early 2000’s I traveled to Kenya with a group of mostly older ladies from my church. The first part of our trip was a profoundly misguided mission to “build” a one-room school house in a remote area outside of Nairobi. I mention the fact that our team was made up of mostly older ladies to emphasise just how misguided the notion that we could build a school was. It was mostly a disaster.
In the latter half of our trip we met up with another team from church and worked together to run an inner-city day camp for Nairobi youth. This, of course, was more within all of our skill sets and was much more successful.
I tell you all of this to emphasis a particular point. As a Protestant missionary I brought Christ to those children in that remote area outside of Nairobi. I brought Christ and His message by building that school; a school run by the local church in which they’d learn both academics and faith. As a leader in the day camp the following week I brought Christ, in a much more immediate sense, through our sharing of Bible stories and activities. It was our earnest desire to see these little children, and their families, come to know and understand the hope and grace of our Lord.
I tell you this as a way of comparison.
Pope Francis, in the Philippines this weekend, stopping to visit the orphans did not come like we did in Kenya. Pope Francis didn’t come to do by building a school in which those children would hear about God. Pope Francis didn’t come to tell those students about Jesus in the earnest desire that they would come to life more fully. Pope Francis came to be.
In a beautiful and powerful sense we Christians are called to the priesthood. We are called to be co-redeemers with Christ of all creation. It’s a remarkable thing. We are called, quite starkly, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. To do His work, to proclaim His justice, to announce the coming of His kingdom. We are all priests in that sense.
But in an even more unique sense, Pope Francis is Christ on earth.
When I live and serve—really, in all of my daily life—I am a little Christ, a Christian. I am the hands and feet of Christ. I come and go to do God’s will on earth.
When Pope Francis comes and goes he comes as the singular head of the Church on earth, he comes in place of Christ himself. He comes in the role that Christ appointed to Peter, to keep the keys of the kingdom and shepherd the Church.
I found this remarkable as I watched Pope Francis sitting with his legs crossed amongst the hundred or so rescued street children at that shelter in the Philippines. I found it incredibly moving as they touched him, as he touched them, and as he and they smiled, and laughed, and interacted. This, I thought, is where Christ would go; that is what Christ would do. At that point in time, Pope Francis was, remarkably, representing Jesus on earth. As the cameras followed him, as the media clamoured over him, they were following and clamouring over the actions of Jesus through his vicar on earth.
I should say, I’ll stop clamouring shortly but one final thought.
From the white smoke and the election of the Pope in the Sistine Chapel, to the Habemus Papam when the new Pope is announced, through to the work of the Pope on councils, synods, committees, through to his worldwide ministry and apostolic visits it is, to me, a wholly beautiful thing to think that this mere man represents Christ to the world. Is this crazy? Yes, absolutely, but through all of history, God has always chosen men to mediate His graces and to do His work. That is beautiful, too.
That we have a representative of Christ living and breathing among us is incredible. That was have such an example and such a leader is a remarkable gift of grace from God.
Habemus Papam. The Vicar of Christ on earth.