Among the heads of the ancient Apostolic Sees (Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople) the successor to Saint Peter (Rome) was always recognized as holding “first in honor” among bishops. “Now I say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16: 18) Debate has centered on the boundaries of the word “honor” when applied to the Bishop of Rome. Is it merely symbolic, or something more, something juridical? For Catholics, this Petrine primacy is clear. For Orthodox, it is less clear. One of the oldest descriptions accorded to the Bishop of Rome is he who “presides in love” over the other Churches. Immediately after his election, Pope Francis presented himself to the world as the Bishop of Rome, “which presides in charity over all the Churches.”
“Presides in love…” What does that mean? How are “honor” and “love” to be understood in relation to the Church’s leadership? It’s a striking, mysterious phrase, and Catholics should be aware of its ecclesiological richness and depth. In 2001, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger exchanged a couple of friendly letters with the Orthodox Metropolitan of Switzerland Damaskinos over this very question. Here’s what he wrote.
I believe that we could correctly define “jurisdiction over the whole church” on this basis: the “honor” of the first [the Bishop of Rome] is not, indeed, to be understood in the sense of the honor accorded by worldly protocol; honor in the Church is service, obedience to Christ. Then again, agape [love] is not just a feeling entailing no obligations, still less a form of social organization, but is in the final analysis a eucharistic concept, which is as such connected to the theology of the Cross, since the Eucharist is based on the Cross; the Cross is the most extreme expression of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
If the Church in the very depth of her being coincides with the Eucharist, then the presidency of love carries with it a responsibility for unity …” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, Ignatius Press)
The Pope, more than any other bishop, is responsible for the unity of the Churches. For our part, let’s stay close to him.
“O God, Shepherd and Ruler of all Thy faithful, look mercifully upon Thy servant Francis, whom Thou hast chosen as shepherd to preside over Thy Church: grant him, we beseech Thee, that, by word and example, he may edify those over whom he hath charge, so that together with the flock committed to him, he may attain everlasting life. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” (Traditional prayer for the Roman Pontiff)