When we think of the Roman Catholic Church, we cannot but be amazed that as a human institution, we have managed to stay united under one leadership of St Peter and his successors for the last 2000 years. There is no human institution, whether political or religious, that has remained united as one organization for so long. Even if they still exist, they are very much divided into sects and denominations. But the Church, in spite of the onslaught of sin and scandals within, and challenges and opposition from without, remains strong as she weathers the vicissitudes of development.
What is the secret of the unity and permanency of the Church? It is because our faith rests in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ and sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is more than just a human institution. We believe it is of divine origin because it was established by Christ, our Lord and Saviour Himself. This was what the Lord said at the gospel. “So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” The Church derives her authority from Christ Himself. It is a spiritual authority entrusted to the Church for the salvation of humanity.
This loss of faith in the spiritual authority Church is due to the secular influence of the world. Many, even Catholics, today see the Church as a mere human institution. They speak about democracy. There are attempts to run the Church according to popular consensus as in politics in democratic countries. If truth, whether in doctrines and morality, is decided by consensus or voting, the Church would have been divided two thousand years ago. This is why the world is so divided because it promotes relativism. When truth is decided by vote and consensus, the sheep, some of which are blind and dumb, or wounded and injured, will lead the shepherd. This is why the Lord said to Peter, “Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.”
Truth is from God. Without God, there is no truth. Faith in God requires divine revelation, not something that we can reason with the human mind. If that were the case, then there is no need for faith if faith is proven and reasoned. Precisely, because truth is beyond human grasp, we need the revelation of God and faith is our response to that truth. For Peter and the apostles to confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that requires an act of faith. Christ who reveals His Father to us and His identity as the Son of God demands a response of faith. Only those who have faith can see the Risen Lord, which confirms His identity as the Son of God. Therefore, the authority of the Church is a spiritual authority and not one that rests on human approval.
Indeed, the spiritual authority of the Church comes from faith. Faith in Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, is the basis of this authority. This is what the Lord meant when He said to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” What is this rock? This rock refers primarily to Christ as the cornerstone of the Church. He is our rock of salvation on which the foundation of the Church rests. Faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour, is the rock on which every Christian’s faith in built. Secondly, this rock refers to the faith of St Peter who confessed in Christ as the Son of the living God. In this confession, he represents the entire Church in declaring our faith in Christ. He speaks in the name of the Church. This is why the Pope, as the supreme head of the Church, speaks and teaches in the name of the Church and in the name of Christ.
This does not mean that the Church is simply hierarchical and not collegial. Whilst we recognize that the supreme authority lies in the successor of St Peter and the apostles, which we call the Magisterium, the Church acts democratically by collaborating with all clergy, religious and laity through consultation and dialogue. The Holy Father and the Magisterium have a moral obligation to consult the People of God with regard to doctrines and morals, and especially in the area of administration. However, in the final analysis, after all the consultation, the Magisterium must bring all the different views to prayer, and seek divine guidance over what is right and what is wrong.
What, then, is the nature of the spiritual authority exercised by the Church? Firstly, it is an exercise of Church discipline, doctrines and morals. The Church has to safeguard the deposit of faith entrusted to her by Christ as contained in scripture and tradition. The Lord promised Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” The truths of faith cannot change but the way we express them and how we apply them to concrete situations require creativity. This is what Pope Francis is seeking to do; not to change the doctrines but to apply them in a way that attracts people to Christ and not drive them further away from the Church. The Church also has a duty to protect the People of God and to ensure unity and order by acting to prevent moral decadence, scandals and injustices.
Secondly, the real authority of the Church is to proclaim the mercy and forgiveness of God. This is the primary mission of the Church because Christ’s primary mission is to reveal God’s mercy and compassion for us sinners through His death and resurrection. Hence, Jesus bestowed on Peter and his successors, including the apostles, the authority to forgive sins. He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22f) This is the thrust of Pope Francis’ legacy as well. Whilst Pope Emeritus Benedict underscored the love of God, Pope Francis spelt out this love as His mercy. The Church’s mission is one of mercy, not condemnation. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:16f)
Thirdly, this authority given to the Church is the authority to proclaim the Good News to all creation. This mission is given to every Christian who shares the faith of Sts Peter and Paul in proclaiming Christ as the Saviour of all humanity. All of us, regardless who we are, have a responsibility by virtue of our baptism to announce to the world that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and to share the Good News of salvation which we have received. With St Paul, the great missionary to the Gentile, we too must offer our life for the service of the gospel according to the vocation we have been given. We are called to be faithful like St Paul, serving the Lord right to the end. St Paul said, “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”
Indeed, even as we struggle in our times to weather the attacks on the Church and her doctrines from without, and to deal with the scandals and sins from within, we must hold on to our faith in Christ who promised to be with the Church until the end of time. Just as He protected St Peter when he was in prison and delivered him from his enemies, He too will send His angels to deliver us from our trials and from death. God will not abandon the Church, and the sign that He is with us is precisely, the indefatigable fidelity of the Church.
This, too, is the prayer of the psalmist and Christians for all ages, “Glorify the Lord with me. Together let us praise his name. I sought the Lord and he answered me; from all my terrors he set me free. Look towards him and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed. This poor man called, the Lord heard him and rescued him from all his distress. The angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them. Taste and see that the Lord is good. He is happy who seeks refuge in him.”
So have courage when we see the turmoil in the world, and even within the Church. He will stand by us. With St Paul, we can be assured of God’s fidelity to us as well. With him, we declare confidently, “The Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”