Msgr. Carlos Vicente G. Estrada, PhD
Each year, beginning on January 18 and ending on January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Catholic Church, in union with the World Council of Churches, celebrates the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. “Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: ‘That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us,… so that the world may know that you have sent me.’”
A point of interest is that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity arose from the desire of two American Episcopalians, Fr. Paul James Wattson and Sr. Lurana White, to reunite the Anglicans with the Roman Catholic Church. They started a prayer movement whose objective was to petition for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy See. In a conversation in 1907 with an English clergyman, Rev. Spencer Jones, Fr. Paul suggested that an octave of prayer for Christian unity be held beginning on the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair on January 18 and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25. This period was eventually called the Church Unity Octave. Fr. Paul and Sr. Lurana eventually became Roman Catholics. Pope Pius X gave his blessing to this prayer octave and Pope Benedict XV instituted it for the universal church.
An essential element of unity in and with the Church is unity with its head, the Roman Pontiff. Little would it matter if non-Catholics were united to the Catholic Church, but not to the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Pope.
St. Ambrose would affirm, “It is to Peter that He says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church’ (Mt 16:18). Where Peter is, there is the Church (Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia). And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal.”
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt 16:19)
“Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ (Mt 16:19) The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.’ (Jn 21:15–17; cf. 10:11) The power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles (Cf. Mt 18:18.) and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.”
The power or authority the Holy Father exercises is not one of dominion or control, but of giving up his life in the service of the sheep. In that incident after the Lord’s Resurrection, when Jesus thrice asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”, and Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”, our Lord made it clear that Peter’s authority would entail giving his life for the sheep. The Holy Father, whoever he may be, is Christ, the Good Shepherd, leading the flock of the Church towards the heavenly home.
In the Church’s history, this mandate to “Feed the sheep” was exercised by Popes after Peter in many different ways amidst myriad challenges to papal authority. Nonetheless, the Popes throughout history have always been guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and doctrine.
A significant and definitive pronouncement on papal authority was made in the First Vatican Council, enshrined in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, during the papacy of Pius IX:
…Whoever succeeds to the Chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church… Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith, the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd. This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.
We form part of the sheepfold of the Church, and we see the logic behind submitting “to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience”. Only by following the lead of the Good Shepherd can we reach our heavenly home, much like sheep being led to good pasture.
St. Cyprian would affirm that unity to Peter is the sure sign that we are in the Church. “On him (Peter) He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep, and although He assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet He founded a single chair (cathedra), and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity…. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he (should) desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
St. Jerome would state, “I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none, but the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails.”
St. Thomas Aquinas highlights the importance of being united to the head as a prerequisite for unity in the Church:
So, also, at the present time, some are described as dissolving Christ by diminishing His dignity so far as this lies in their power. In saying that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son, they lessen His dignity, since He together with the Father is the Spirator of the Holy Spirit. In denying, moreover, that there is one [visible] head of the Church, namely, the Holy Roman church, they clearly dissolve the unity of the Mystical Body; for there cannot be one body if there is not one head, nor one congregation if there is not one congregation if there is not one ruler: hence, John 10:16: ‘There will be one fold and one shepherd”.
Nonetheless, despite the evidence of Sacred Scripture, the pronouncements of the Magisterium, and the unanimous witness of the Fathers of the Church, challenges to papal authority and unity with the Pope have always existed.
The First Vatican Council dogmatic definition of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and the obedience due to him was cited earlier. Not all was smooth sailing after that. The dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus was unanimously approved by the 535 Council Fathers present “after long, fierce, and heated discussions”. This was affirmed by Saint Paul VI in a general audience in 1969. Eighty three Council Fathers abstained from voting. The disagreements gave rise to the schism of the Old Catholics, who did not accept the doctrines of papal authority and infallibility. As the saying goes, “History repeats itself”. Those who, in our times, criticize the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis are not the first to do so.
Il dolce Cristo in terra (Sweet Christ on earth: St. Catherine of Sienna)
In an address to priests, St. Pius X would cry out, “It seems incredible, and is even painful, that there be priests to whom this recommendation must be made, but we are regrettably in our age in this hard, unhappy, situation of having to tell priests: love the Pope!” This evidently can be addressed to all in the Church: love the Pope!
St. John Bosco would encourage those around him to preserve in their hearts “three white loves”: the Eucharist, Our Lady, and the Pope. Referring to these three loves of St. John Bosco, Pope Francis would comment in a visit to to the Salesian Community in Turin, June 21, 2015: “Do not forget the three white loves: don’t be ashamed of speaking about Our Lady, of performing the Eucharist and doing so well, and don’t be ashamed of the Holy Mother Church. Sadly, she is attacked every day . . .” Pope Francis’ words in 2015 would be prophetic. He himself would be the object of several attacks from Catholics with perhaps good intentions.
In more contemporary times, St. Josemaría, the Founder of Opus Dei, would state: “Christ. Mary. The Pope. Haven’t we just indicated, in three words, the loves that make up the entire Catholic faith?”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who has recently returned to the Father’s house, would beg young people in the World Youth Day in Krakow on May 27, 2006:
Do not be afraid to build your life on the Church and with the Church. You are all proud of the love you have for Peter and for the Church entrusted to him. Do not be fooled by those who want to play Christ against the Church. There is one foundation on which it is worthwhile to build a house. This foundation is Christ. There is only one rock on which it is worthwhile to place everything. This rock is the one to whom Christ said: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church’ (Mt 16:18).
Young people, you know well the Rock of our times. Accordingly, do not forget that neither that Peter who is watching our gathering from the window of God the Father, nor this Peter who is now standing in front of you, nor any successive Peter will ever be opposed to you or the building of a lasting house on the rock. Indeed, he will offer his heart and his hands to help you construct a life on Christ and with Christ.
Pius X, in the address to priests mentioned earlier, would give the reasons why the Pope should be loved:
The Pope is the guardian of dogma and of morals; he is the custodian of the principles that make families sound, nations great, souls holy; he is the counselor of princes and of peoples; he is the head under whom no one feels tyrannized because he represents God Himself; he is the supreme father who unites in himself all that may exist that is loving, tender, divine.
In 1988, the successor of St. Josemaría Escrivá as President-General, Blessed Alvaro del Portillo who would then be Prelate of Opus Dei, echoed the same sentiments of his predecessor, highlighting that the Church has to be built on the foundation that Jesus established, namely Peter. This idea is very similar to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI transmitted to the young people in the address quoted earlier:
Remaining united to the Pope is the only way to be faithful to Our Lord’s words, who assured us: super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. It is Christ who builds up the Church—and we with him—through the Holy Spirit, but on the foundation that he himself has placed. The only path for us is to act always cum Petro et sub Petro, in union with the Pope and subject to his authority.
“You must love, venerate, pray and mortify yourself for the Pope, and do so with greater affection each day…” (St. Josemaría Escrivá)
Let us return to that beautiful address of St. Pius X to priests:
And how must the Pope be loved? Non verbo neque lingua, sed opere et veritate. [Not in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth – 1 Jn 3, 18] When one loves a person, one tries to adhere in everything to his thoughts, to fulfill his will, to perform his wishes. And if Our Lord Jesus Christ said of Himself, “si quis diligit me, sermonem meum servabit,” [if any one love me, he will keep my word – Jn 14, 23] therefore, in order to demonstrate our love for the Pope, it is necessary to obey him.
Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey – that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.
This is the cry of a heart filled with pain, that with deep sadness I express, not for your sake, dear brothers, but to deplore, with you, the conduct of so many priests, who not only allow themselves to debate and criticize the wishes of the Pope, but are not embarrassed to reach shameless and blatant disobedience, with so much scandal for the good and with so great damage to souls.
One cannot but cringe at the anguish with which Saint Pius X exhorted the priests of the Church to be united to the Pope. The hearts of us priests and lay persons should burn with the same zeal that led not only Saint Pius X but all the successors of St. Peter before him, as well as all the saints in the history of the Church who have given their lives for the Pope and the Church.
But let not our hearts remain in abstract desires of being united to the Pope. I suggest very concrete steps that are within our reach to grow in love and unity with the Holy Father whoever he may be.
First, let us pray and offer sacrifices for the Holy Father. If you attend daily Mass, you would be praying for the Pope together with the priest-celebrant and all the faithful gathered in church during the Eucharistic Prayer. On some occasions, the general intercessions contain a petition for the Pope.
Second, let us read and reflect on the Pope’s documents and his pronouncements. The documents would be his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations. Every now and then he may release a special pronouncement on some issue involving the universal Church. Every Wednesday, he delivers an address during the general audiences. In these addresses, the Pope tackles topics that are relevant for the life of each person, Catholic or not.
A caveat: Please do not get your information about the Holy Father’s pronouncements solely from articles in the secular press or from certain Catholic websites that claim to defend the orthodox doctrine of the Church. These sources often take the Pope’s statements out of context or air out individual prejudices. Rather than wishing that the Holy Father conform to what we expect him to say, we would do well to reflect on what the Holy Spirit wants to tell us through the Pope.
Third, let us be instruments of unity in the Church and be open to dialogue. We cannot expect reality to be what we would want it to be. Rather, as St. John Paul II would recommend on various occasions, we need to read the “signs of the times”. “In the eyes of Christian faith, the invitation to discern the signs of the times corresponds to the eschatological newness introduced into history by the coming of the Logos among us (cf. Jn 1:14). In fact, Jesus invites us to discern the words and deeds which bear witness to the imminent coming of the Father’s kingdom. … The providential ordering of the signs of the times was at first hidden in the secret of the Father’s plan (cf. Rom 16:25; Eph 3:9), broke into history and made its advance in the paradoxical sign of the crucified and risen Son (cf. 1 Pt 1:19-21).”
We end as we began, ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. We are thankful that Jesus Christ has wanted to lay firm foundations, not in some abstract reality or in dogmatic formulas, but in his Vicar on earth, who has the help of the Holy Spirit.
January 4, 2023
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 820; Jn. 17:21.
 St. Ambrose of Milan, “Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David” c. 389 A.D.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 553.
 Promulgated 18 July 1870.
 St. Cyprian Of Carthage, “On the Unity of the Catholic Church,” 251 A.D.
 St. Jerome, “Letter 15,” 396 A.D.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Prologue, Part II, Contra Errores Graecorum.
 As of 2016, there were 115,000 Old Catholics. “International Old-Catholic Bishops’ Conference”. oikoumene.org. Geneva: World Council of Churches. Archived from the original on 16 February 2016. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
 Saint Pius X, Allocution Vi ringrazio to priests on the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Union November 18, 1912.
 St. Josemaría Escrivá, Instruction, March 19, 1934, no. 31. Cited, for example, in Conversaciones, Edición crítico-histórica, p. 260, note 46a.
 Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, Homily, May 2, 1988, cited in Romana, no. 4 (1988), p. 101.
 The Forge, 134.