Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Papal Participation Trophies

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 28, 2023

Most of us could do without the absurdity of a sports participation trophy. However, there is nothing absurd about spiritual “participation trophies” awarded to teachers, fathers, priests, and popes for protecting the integrity of their offices.

Jesus says: “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.” (Mt. 23:8) Jesus is the source of all teaching authority. A teacher’s purpose is to instruct students with the truth. Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (Jn. 14:6) A teacher who does not participate in the truth of Jesus—human and divine—relinquishes his right to the title of “teacher.”

Jesus says: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Mt. 23:9) God the Father is the source of fatherhood. A father’s purpose is to be a good husband to his wife and a virtuous father to his children. A father who abuses his wife and neglects his children does not participate in the Fatherhood of God. He relinquishes his right to the title “father.”

A priest’s fatherhood is rooted in the Fatherhood of God through Jesus. A priest who fails to participate in God’s fatherhood by failing to teach the truth of Christ also gives up his right to be called “Father.”

Jesus says: “Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Mt. 23:10-12) All power belongs to God. Those in authority must rule in a just and Godly way. Those in power must serve their subjects in humility. A ruler who does not participate in authentically human service to others relinquishes his right to the secular titles of master, mayor, ruler, king, or president. He becomes a dictator.

Jesus didn’t surrender His authority to Peter when He instituted the papacy. He delegated His power to Peter and His Church. Jesus asked his disciples: “‘Who do men say that the Son of man is?” He adds, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 16:13-17)

Peter acknowledges the truth of Jesus, but his wisdom is not his own. God reveals His truths to him. Peter’s acknowledgment participates in the teaching authority of Jesus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death [gates of hell] shall not prevail against it. 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. 16:18-19)

Jesus delegates His authority to Peter, but Jesus doesn’t need a spiritual director. Peter quickly squanders his responsibilities by advising Jesus to avoid the Cross. Jesus’ harsh rebuke warns Peter not to exceed his delegated powers: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mt. 16:23)

Papal successors share in Peter’s authority. The front door of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome displays a carved image of Peter with his keys. Each successive pope borrows Peter’s keys, participates in his papal ministry, and returns the keys at the end of his life. A pope’s authority does not stand alone. It belongs to Jesus through papal participation in the Petrine ministry. A pope who exceeds his delegated powers is a spiritual dictator or—to use Jesus’ term—Satan.

The Chair of Peter is in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Peter’s successors occupy that Chair as they participate in the Petrine ministry. The Chair of Peter reminds popes of the parameters of their authority. Should they remove themselves from the Chair and depart from the teachings of Jesus, they relinquish their God-given papal delegation.

Years ago, popes solemnly read their texts to avoid misunderstanding with regal displays. Today, we have a more relaxed papal style that sometimes causes confusion. Pope Benedict habitually acknowledged the limits of his authority. In his Jesus of Nazareth books, he humbly explained that he wasn’t exercising his papal authority. Benedict’s disclaimers participated in the humility of Peter who, during his first encounter with Jesus, said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Lk. 5:8)

In his 2013 farewell address, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged his delegated powers and directed our attention to Jesus through Peter:

Today you have professed the Creed before the tomb of Saint Peter: in the Year of Faith, this seems to me to be a most appropriate act, a necessary one, perhaps, that the clergy of Rome should gather around the tomb of the Apostle to whom the Lord said: ‘To you I entrust my Church. Upon you I will build my Church” (cf. Mt 16:18-19). Before the Lord, together with Peter, you have professed: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16). ”

Benedict reminds us that the Church is the guardian and servant—not the master—of God’s word:

The fact of the canon of Scripture is already an ecclesial fact: that these writings are Scripture is the result of an illumination of the Church, who discovered in herself this canon of Scripture; she discovered it, she did not create it; and always and only in this communion of the living Church can one really understand and read the Scripture as the word of God, as a word which guides us in life and in death.”

All papal authority derives from the apostolic deposit of the faith and sacred Tradition and helps us participate in the life of Jesus. Absent this “papal participation trophy,” call no successor of Peter teacher, father, master, or pope.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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