Wednesday, February 27, 2013

7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy (#5)

The Papacy could have taken a different form—and it still can.

The papacy is the world's oldest continuously existing office. But that doesn't mean it always looked the way it does today. The papacy as we know it took almost 2000 years to take this shape, and it can continue to change according to the needs of the Church.

The experience of the first bishops of Rome was hardly what we could call “pontifical.” Waves of persecution, sometimes lackadaisical, sometimes ferocious, ensured that the local bishop kept a fairly low profile in civil society. Besides, the local bishop probably only had a low social profile: Callistus II (+222), for example, had been a slave.

Things changed dramatically when Constantine legalized Christianity—and then started constructing shrines over the tombs of Peter and Paul. The first church buildings began to appear on the sites of the homes that had hosted the community. Many of these churches are known to this day by the names of the homeowners: Cecilia, Chrysogono, Susanna, Praxedes, Pudentiana...) (You can find a list of the churches by family name and current name here: With the Church taking its place in society, leadership styles also evolved. Popes no longer expected martyrdom to end their ministry. Little by little, imperial trappings became associated with the Bishop of Rome. Even the Roman “basilica” (royal) style of architecture was used for Churches.

 Gregory the Great, by Jacopo Vignali
from the Walters Art Museum
At about the same time, though, Imperial Rome moved east, to the newly named “Constantinople” (Constantine's city), the “new Rome.” Old Rome was left more or less to fend for itself, and the Bishop of Rome stepped into the void. Leo the Great is credited with convincing Attila the Hun to spare the decrepit city; a century later, Gregory (also “the Great”), a monk with diplomatic experience, used his organizational skills (he had been Prefect of Rome) for the relief of the needy, setting up an administrative system to streamline assistance. In effect, Gregory restored government to the city. Now he was not just the Bishop of Rome, he was the de facto mayor. Temporal rule was added to the evangelical tasks of "feed My lambs, feed My sheep."

By Gregory's time, the Church also had land holdings (the farms that produced the goods Gregory's system distributed). These farms, supplemented 3 centuries later with a dubious land grant attributed to Constantine, became the nucleus of the later “Papal States.” Its last remnant is Vatican City.

It was Gregory who sent missionaries to England, extending the immediate authority of the Bishop of Rome to the far-off British Isles. Later missionaries from England took the Gospel to the still-pagan parts of northern Europe, seeking authorization (as well as bishops) from Rome, uniting all the Christians of Europe even more clearly in communion with the Pope, and giving the Bishop of Rome more of a direct hand in the life of the churches in those lands.

Quick to notice the benefits offered by a united Christendom, Charlemagne imposed the Papal liturgy on his lands. (Given the slow work of copying such complicated manuscripts, this was not entirely successful!) Centuries later, St Francis of Assisi did something similar, telling his friars (in 1223) that their liturgies should follow the rites of Rome and not of the various locations they found themselves in. Both Charlemagne and Francis grasped the unifying quality of the Pope's role. So the papal liturgies had, at least on paper, pride of place even in lands with their own ancient rites. Not until the Council of Trent would the liturgical rites of Rome be mandated throughout the Latin Church, unless a locale could prove that its own rites were over 200 years old. (Conveniently, by the time of Trent the printing press assured ample copies could be made available.) 

Naturally, commercial interests also sought to work this unifying power to their own advantage. With the election of the Bishop of Rome in the hands of the priests and people of the city, influential families (with connections throughout Europe) sought to bend the outcome. Even legislation limiting votes to “Cardinal-Bishops” did not free the papacy from being manipulated and even controlled by the powerful, whether kings or clans (see “Bad Popes”). Like it or not, the Pope was now a prince in his own right. He even started having a coronation--with a unique triple tiara style headdress that continued to be used for about 800 years—until Pope Paul VI retired his immediately after the ceremony.

With the series of revolutions in Europe (beginning with France) that ushered in the modern political framework came the overturning of the former relations between secular and religious authority. Where before a ruler might have submitted nominations for bishop, now that was either outlawed by the nation, or simply unthinkable (a Freethinker—relativist—might be nominated!). The Pope began directly appointing more and more bishops.

It was the loss of the Papal States in 1870 (with the birth of the modern nation of Italy)—along with the birth of popular media—that, oddly enough, contributed greatly to the high profile model of papacy we are familiar with today. Early on, Blessed Pope Pius IX protested by declaring himself a “prisoner of the Vatican.” (He had actually lost his residence, the Quirinale, to the new Italian nation.) But there were advantages to being limited to the tiny territory of Vatican City. The pope was now free to focus on his pastoral ministry without being entrenched in local politics.

Commemorative coins issued by the Vatican on the occasion
of Pope Paul's speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
Pope Leo XIII realized that he could address “the Condition of the Working Classes” with the first-ever social encyclical. Pius X reversed his predecessors' course and gave Italian Catholics permission to participate in elections. John XXIII decided to be “prisoner of the Vatican” no more and ventured out to Rome's hospitals and parishes and prisons. And without any input whatsoever, he called a Council when it wasn't all that apparent to most minds in Rome that one was called for. Paul VI became the first “world” Pope, traveling not only out of Italy, but crossing oceans to speak to the United Nations, visiting the Holy Land, India and even Western Samoa (where he met one of the talking chiefs: my local superior's dad!). The papacy had developed in more ways than could have been imagined in the 2nd or 8th century.

And it can continue to develop. Pope John Paul II's encyclical on Christian unity asked for input on how the papal ministry could evolve to better serve the needs of the whole Christian community. Pope Benedict XVI published books as a private theologian under his given name and is resigning the papal office itself—under no exterior pressure at all.

We haven't seen the end of the development of the papacy.  

This is the 5th in a series of 7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy


Ruth Ann Pilney said...

This is a most interesting and informative series. I can't wait for 6 & 7!

This morning I read the beautiful final address of Pope Benedict.

I adopted a Cardinal two days ago. It turned out to be Cardinal Rai of Lebonon, who was elevated last November. I received his name on the very day of his birthday!

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Thanks, Ruth! Actually 6 ad 7 may be anticlimactic..but they'll be there (eventually).
For those who didn't read the Pope's "goodbye," Rebecca over at Public Catholic posted it along with her reflections: