Friday, 29 January 2010

Unity, St. Francis and the Pope

Zenit has Pope Benedict's address on January 27 during a general audience, in which he spoke about St. Francis of Assisi. The famous painting above depicts the dream of Pope Innocent III in which he sees a corner of the Lateran Basilica being held up by a figure he recognised as the little poor man who had recently been to see him: Brother Francis from Assisi. During his address, Pope Benedict reminded us that although, in the dream, the Pope was not involved in holding up the church, Francis did not seek renewal without the Papacy, but only in unity with it. There's a very important point here, coming after the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it is, as so many have now come to realise, that there can be no true Christian unity without the Papacy, however differently people want to define it.
The fact is, that in spite of arguments between popes and kings, and even with sometimes serious occurrences of ecclesiastical corruption, for centuries, the importance of the Papacy was not questioned. Although there was no dogmatic definition of Papal infallibility, in practice people sought Papal advice and approval, and doctrinal disputes were taken to the Holy See. No one doubted, in the West, that the Pope was the successor of St. Peter and that the Church of Rome had a preeminence which meant that, at different times, and when necessary, other national churches looked in that direction for guidance and support.
The Reformation sought to restore the purity of Christian belief and practice, against what was perceived to be doctrinal and moral corruption. Luther certainly showed contempt for the Pope, but, in the beginning, he did not argue against the institution of the Papacy itself. It always seemed to me that in the rejection of the Papacy what came first was moral outrage at the way it was being conducted. The moral corruption which Luther saw when he went to Rome, and which had such a powerful effect on him, may have led him to question the idea of the Papacy, but it was the (over)reaction to what he heard and saw that came first. Despite the arrival of the printing press and the possibility of greater and easier communication, the European Reformation was confined within certain geographical limits and was also intellectually narrow. At the time that Luther posted his famous theses, there were already currents of reform in the Church, and individuals and religious communities had already begun the work of renewal. Reformation was not a new idea, although it took a new turn.
True renewal cannot take place in a fragmented Church. In fact, true renewal presupposes unity. How can this unity be restored except by returning to the Papacy? Where else can we find a focus for unity? To repeat that Christ is the only head of the Church is to ignore the lessons of history. No one denies the place of Christ, but the Lord Himself appointed the Apostles and gave Peter the "power of the keys". The authority of Christ passed into His Church, and it did so through the Apostles and their successors. Without some form of earthly structure; without doctrinal and moral leadership, Christians are at the mercy of personalities who claim to know best - or even claim to be prophets. Sects abound because people listen to those who present their case in the most convincing manner. Where do we find the truth? How can we decide to accept one interpretation rather than another? Where is the Holy Spirit? Is He in my Anglo-Catholic church or in your Free Presbyterian church? Are the differences merely matters of taste or cultural choice?
It seems to me that true renewal necessarily involves a return to unity, and this can logically only come about with a return to Peter.

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