The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter always struck me as a strange feast day. After all, why set aside a special day to celebrate the glories of...a piece of furniture?! However, the Chair of Peter is not about the actual seat he sat on, but rather the teaching authority he has as Pope. We use this kind of metaphor even in secular areas of society. Think of the politician who becomes chairperson of a committee or the professor who becomes chair of the department. In all cases, the chair is being associated with authority or leadership. One need only think of the throne on which a king or queen sits and rules the kingdom. A chair is a symbol of power.
So why do we celebrate Peter’s authority? Why do we—especially these days with so much corruption present in some members of the clergy—celebrate the authority of the hierarchy: of the Pope, the bishops, priests, and deacons? One easy answer to that question is that it is because God Himself gave the authority to our Church leaders and, irregardless of their personal sanctity, it is for our good to respect them as leaders. The laity do not vote clergy in and out of office, campaign for their advancement, or move to impeach them and so on. The Church is not a political party and its leaders are not politicians. It is easy to love, respect, and listen to a pope, bishop, priest, or deacon who is like-minded, who does what we want, and who is holy. Yet, we are called to love, respect, and listen to all clergy, regardless of the slant they put on things or even regardless of their own personal shortcomings and sins.
The Church is a family. And like a family, we are called to love and respect our father, our grandfathers, our uncles, and so on, because of who they are and not what they do. You love your dad because he’s your dad and probably not because he’s a Nobel-prize winning physicist, a Super Bowl MVP, or an Academy Award-winning actor. The same is with our clergy. Love Pope Francis, love Bishop Scharfenberger, love Fr. Slezak and Deacon Schrempf, not exclusively because of their good qualities (though there are many), but because of who they are: your spiritual fathers.
Hopefully you’re immune to it, but for the past few years much disgusting talk has swirled about criticizing our Holy Father, Pope Francis, as if he were a candidate for political office or a secular celebrity. As I said earlier, Pope Francis is not a politician. He does not vote for legislation or tout political solutions to temporal problems. No. He is our spiritual father, par excellence, or as the beautiful St. Catherine of Siena put it, he is our sweet Christ on earth.
It is none other than the evil one who sows this sort of hatred or disdain for the Holy Father in our hearts. It leads to nothing good and only evil. Division, rancor, an “us vs. them” dynamic are just some of the deleterious effects. I know of at least one friend who has left the Church because of dislike of Pope Francis. It’s important to remember that popes come and go, but the the Body of Christ lasts forever. Never separate oneself from the Body because of a man.
The same love is demanded of us in regards to any Catholic bishop, priest, deacon, or religious. They deserve our utmost respect because of the dignity of their vocation, because of who they are. It is a very good practice to be very careful about what you say or even think of a member of the hierarchy. I know these are days of corruption at various levels and some self-proclaimed lay, watchdog groups have self-appointed themselves over the clergy to “keep them honest” and call out their misdeeds. While there is some good in this, think of it again as your family. What would be the best way to help your father who is struggling with some addiction? Or your grandfather who perhaps has stopped believing in God? Or even your uncle who is committing a serious sin or perhaps even a serious crime? You stand with them, behind them, and you do what charity and justice demand: you love them with your whole heart, while doing what’s best for them and society. You want them to convert, while also taking whatever necessary steps there are, in charity, to bring the situation to justice and peace.
With the pope in particular, remember that he is the vicar of Christ, in a sense, Christ Himself here on earth! What would you say about the man chosen by God to be not only his representative, but in a mystical way, His very self here on earth? Would you smear Christ when it seems he doesn’t correspond to your political convictions? Would you hate Christ Himself, thinking He is not leading the Church as he ought?
In short, we must love the pope. We need to pray for him, to offer sacrifices for him. It might help to consider how we all have a common Mother, that Seat of Wisdom I referred to earlier. In the words of St. Josemaria Escriva:
“Mary continually builds the Church and keeps it together. It is difficult to have devotion to our Lady and not feel closer to the other members of the mystical body and more united to its visible head, the pope. That's why I like to repeat: All with Peter to Jesus through Mary! By seeing ourselves as part of the Church and united to our brothers in the faith, we understand more deeply that we are brothers of all mankind, for the Church has been sent to all the peoples of the earth.”With Lent a week away (Ash Wednesday is next week!), perhaps a good Lenten resolution is simply to love the pope and the clergy a bit more this Lent, and to never let uncharitable words fly from our mouth about them. A corollary resolution could be to offer some specific prayer (a decade of the Rosary, a few minutes of silent prayer, etc.) for the Holy Father each day of Lent and to offer some specific, concrete sacrifice for him (such as eating less of the foods you like and more of the foods you don’t).
Of course, if you need to work on loving your own father or other family members more, then please do so. But don’t forget to love your Holy Father all the more: our sweet Christ on earth.