The soul of a pope’s job
A pope embodies God’s love for man and man’s love for God. This is the strong impression one gets from the tender exchange between Christ and apostle Peter in a dawn scene depicted in the final chapter of St. John’s gospel. God’s love for man and man’s love for God are the soul of a pope’s job.
“Feed my sheep,” the risen Jesus told Peter repeatedly after suffering greatly and dying a bitter death out of love for His flock. But first, He also repeatedly asked Peter, “Dost thou love me more than these?” His persistence grieved Peter, who would become the first pope and the rock on which He would build His church.
The scene, lighted by the dawn’s early light and a dying fire, evoked as well what Jesus had called the first and greatest commandment: “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy might; and thy neighbor as thyself.” The scene just tenderly overflowed with love.
“Simon, son of John, dost thou love me more than these do?” Jesus asked Peter. When Peter replied strongly in the affirmative, Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.” He asked Peter the same question three times, his insistence grieving the big fisherman.
Each time Peter replied, Jesus told him to feed His sheep. His instruction was, in modern military parlance, Peter’s mission order as apostle and first pope—and the mission order of all popes who would come after him. The import and impact of those words of Christ are now very much alive in our Pope Francis.
But they also pulsated, in a subdued way, in the conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and strongly in the late charismatic Pope John Paul II. For over 2,000 years, with rare exceptions in the 10th century, they throbbed in Rome through a long, long line of pontiffs—265 of them before Francis—who carried out that order with sincerity, faith and sacrifice, sometimes even unto martyrdom.
Jesus had earlier indicated to His apostles how they should go about their errand. His words about feeding His sheep resonate with that earlier advice—that the first should be last or lowest, and be of service to all. This stressed that the pope, bishops, priests, and all who serve should do so with humility.
Perhaps, Pope Francis more visibly personalizes Christ’s mission order more than other popes because of the modern media. There must have been other pontiffs with the same sincerity, humility, love and heroism, but they did not capture the fascination of the world. There were no lightning-fast media during their time.
To many faithful Catholics, Pope Francis’ “career” and ascendancy is thoroughly imbued with Christ’s mission order. His papacy, to such Catholics, was divinely willed or was the outcome of direct divine intervention. Of course, the same can be said of the ascendancy of
John Paul II and of other pontiffs.
From the start, divine will underscored Pope Francis’ priestly life. His vocation has been likened to that of Matthew, the evangelist. The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio went to confession on the feast of St. Matthew in 1953, and just felt the “call.” He heeded it, as did the apostle Matthew when called by Christ to follow Him.
Christ’s words ran though Francis’ life when he was priest, bishop and archbishop in Argentina. As the top prelate, he lived in a small, simple apartment instead of the plush archbishop’s residence. He cooked his own meals, commuted via public transportation, and was in the frontlines in the effort to help the poor and downtrodden.
As pontiff, he is known to stop the popemobile and wade into a crowd to greet and bless people, especially the humblest and the sick. He goes around in a bantam car, not the papal limousine. He wears his old iron pectoral cross, not the gold one that popes normally wear, and black shoes, not the red branded pair used by his predecessors.
The program of activities in his visit to the Philippines is biased toward the poor and lowly rather than the rich and powerful, and toward the survivors of natural disasters. He wants to be more with—and do more for—the least of his brethren.
Jesus did affirm that His words were Peter’s—and the popes’—mission order. The apostles had spent a whole night trying to catch fish, in vain. At dawn they saw a man on the shore, who asked if they had caught any fish. They answered no, and the man told them to cast their net on the other side of their boat.
Complying, they couldn’t pull their net up as it was full of fish, symbolizing the catch they’d make when they go out to preach. Peter and John, seeing that the man on the shore was Jesus, jumped from the boat and waded ahead. They found Him cooking fish for their breakfast.
After their exchange about love and sheep, Jesus foretold Peter’s martyrdom, perhaps to stress his mission and what it would entail. He seemed to negate a previous uttering—that where He would go, no one could follow—perhaps because He knew Peter and company would now be true and faithful to His directive.
Jesus then asked Peter to follow Him. When Peter noticed the young apostle John walking after them, he asked, “Lord, what of this man?” Jesus’ reply indicated that Peter should keep to himself and his own instructions: “If I wish him to remain until I come, what is it to thee? Do thou follow me?”
Those last words of Jesus practically end St. John’s gospel, but open a new and marvelous age that will last for eons.
Quincy T. Ataviado is a retired newsman.
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