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The Next Faithful Step

The Papacy


“Pope” comes from a word meaning “father.” We are indebted to the same word of origin when we use the word “Papa” or hear Laura Ingles affectionately call Charles “Pa.” As a Protestant, it is interesting to hear the word “Pope” alongside such terms of endearment. The Protestant experience of “Pope” has not always been so warm (this wins the award for understatement if you ever read Martin Luther on the Pope). But the Protestant experience is not the worldwide historical norm. True, the papacy has had more than its share of controversy and corruption. But when we look at the experience of the Church with regards to papal authority we do find that the Pope has often functioned as a father, a papa, with all the connotations of warmth, authority, and security that the word brings.

Leo the Great was Pope in the mid-5th century. He represents the inauguration of a time in Church history where the bishop of Rome—the Pope—increasingly became a symbol not only of ecclesiastical authority, but of civil security as well. In 452 C.E. Italy was invaded by Attila the Hun (known as “the Scourge of God”) and Rome was in his sites. In an attempt to prevent the destruction of the city, Leo left Rome to meet with the famous and feared invader. It is not known what was said, but the Pope was able to save Rome by convincing Attila to turn away from the city.

Similarly, in the 6th century Gregory the Great was also working for stability and security for Rome. In his time, the city had fallen into disrepair because of neglect. The Western portion of the Empire had long fallen to invaders and Rome had lost its grandeur. Again, it was the Pope who acted as a force for stability as Gregory began the project of repairing the aqueduct system and rebuilding the city’s defenses.

What we find in looking at the function of the role of the Pope in these centuries of the Church is that, through the papacy, the Church was taking on a sort of gap-filling role in society. Governments (if they could be called that) were rising and falling, consistent leadership was non-existent especially at the local level, cities and societies were falling into disrepair. Through the leadership of the Pope, it was the Church that provided stability in an instable and volatile society. The Pope represented much more than his function as a church leader.

I remember the palpable sigh of relief in the congregation of my first call when I started there. It had been years since they had had a full-time pastor and several years that they had had an interim as they searched and waited for their next pastor. Looking back, I think I mostly misunderstood the relief. The relief actually stressed me out quite a bit because it manifested itself in many folks as the sort of relief you see on the poor victim’s face when the superhero arrives. It was the relief of thinking that someone has finally arrived that both can and will fix things. Members had grown increasingly concerned over the past several years as membership continued to decline and nothing seemed to be working. But now, here was a new fresh face—young and full of ideas and passion. Things would be different now.

The feeling of being the one to fix things—the one expected to know what to do—was a lot of pressure. And I went through a range of emotions in response from anxiety to anger (how dare they think I know what I’m doing!). I do think, however, that I was misunderstanding what was really going on. Whereas I interpreted the congregation’s relief as high performance expectations, I think it was really a bit deeper and more fundamental than that. Even though some of them might have understood and voiced their relief as performance expectations, I think that at the heart of it was something similar to how the Church—through the papacy—functioned in the fifth and sixth centuries. Just as the Church acted to bring stability and security to unstable and insecure societies in those centuries, I think that people look to the Church to bring the same sort of stability and security into their own often-chaotic lives.  And the pastor, for many, represents what the Church is and can be for them.

I wish I would have understood this better while I was pastoring that congregation. I likely would have interpreted and gone about things differently if I saw their expectations as an expression of the historical need for security in chaos that the Church can provide when it is as its best. I’m not sure the extent to which that would have made me less anxious—providing security is a big call—but it surely would have made me less self-defensively angry. I could have spent less time focusing on frustration and anxiety and more on finding ways to facilitate the Church providing folks with what they are probably really needing.