Wednesday 13 March 2013

Why the Pope Must be a Martyr

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

There is a new Pope. The speculation and declarations of which candidate would make the best pontiff had reached their fever pitch. Much of what was written was quite valid, but much also missed an important point. Yes, the new Pope should be a reformer, a pastor and a leader. Really there is no candidate that can fill those almost impossible expectations, plus be a saint, a scholar, a linguist, and a rock star. But we may have forgotten that the Pope must also be a martyr. Indeed, must primarily be a martyr.

Let me explain. The Pope must be a martyr because the whole Church is called to be martyrological – that is, a living witness to Christ, and Christ crucified. Since Peter’s foundational declaration, “You are Christ, the Son of the Living God”, the Petrine Office has primarily been about professing this living reality. Jesus responded to this first ecclesial “faith-statement” by declaring that flesh and blood had not revealed this to Peter but the heavenly Father, and that Peter would be the rock on which he would build his church. The church, then, is built upon a public profession of faith. Peter becomes the first credo-bearer – or witness. But there is more.

A witnessing Pope will be a prophetic Pope, one who speaks truth to power. The Church is always going to call humanity to the hidden truth of the cross: that in humility and self-gift reside life. The Church thus defies all attempts to place her in an ideological box. She will admonish and speak truth to tyranny and power whether on the right or the left. But she must be willing to do this to the end.

Joseph Ratzinger explained the "martyrological structure of the papacy" in his 2008 book The Church, Ecumenism and Politics, by taking the insights of Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–1558) during the Reformation. Pole had discovered that witnessing to the primacy of Peter was linked with suffering martyrdom. The denial of papal primacy on the part of the king in his day was leading to the transfer of religious authority to the English State. Pole concluded that the rejection of papal primacy undermined the distinction between secular and Church authority made in the Gospel.

But the role of Peter's successor is not just one of authority, but of living in the way of the cross. At the end of John’s Gospel, Christ makes this statement to Peter after commissioning him to feed his sheep: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). With this, Christ was indicating the kind of martyrological existence the Church’s new leader will live and die by.

Peter as the chief witness of the faith, “is to be understood first in terms of the witness for which personal responsibility is taken in martyrdom, as the verification of one’s witness to the Crucified who is victorious upon the Cross.” In this optic, then, papal primacy represents the Church’s universal opposition to all tendencies on the part of secular powers to totalitarianism and tyranny, and to do this, the Pontiff’s locus remains the Cross of Christ where he abides in continual witness.

The apparent “powerlessness” of human conscience is a powerful contradiction to the aspirations to greater dominance on the part of worldly powers. Pole’s position sees the Pope’s power of witness precisely in terms of an imitation of Christ, and is thus closely linked to the mystery of his kenosis, or self-emptying. Christ is born a child, humbled himself to become man, obedient to the Father – yes, the Son of God became “little”! The English Cardinal applied this to the papacy:
In his ministry and as shepherd, he must consider and conduct himself as one who is quite little and acknowledge that he knows nothing but this one thing: what he has been taught by God the Father through Christ (cf. I Cor 2:2).
All the majestic titles applied to Christ in scripture refer directly to his Divine nature and are received only after his humiliation on the Cross. Likewise, the Pope, as a representative of Christ in the temporal world, only possesses certain titles in light of him whom he represents, and then only “in and by way of humiliation.” The Chair of Peter in Rome is the place where Peter planted the cross of Christ, where he remained in obedience to the will of God (and not where his own will urged him to go), and where he was ultimately crucified. Pole expresses what many believers know intuitively, that “the office of the papacy is a cross, indeed, the greatest of all crosses,” for the burden of the care for all the Churches in the world is a yoke of not insubstantial weight. For this reason, he will say that the qualities of a Pope may be those that are least desirable in a human political leader. The more a man resembles Christ, the less will he seem capable of human government, “because reason cannot fathom humiliation or the Cross.”

There is a need for strong leadership, reform of the Curia, the new evangelization and a global outlook. But the most important quality of the new Pope is and will always be his willingness to represent the humbled Christ, even—and especially—when it is a sign of contradiction to the logic of the world, “a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). That is where the Pope must make his stand. The humble but strong Pope Francis seems ready to take up this cross.


  1. And so, Francis I, with his poverty and humility, a gift.

  2. Woh ... John, you hit a home run with this amazing post, and with perfect quotes from B16 (quoting Cardinal Pole) to boot. This was just what I needed today. I blogged about it:

    Thank you so much. Tom Schuessler Mayville, WI

  3. Hmmm... this is beautifully deep.
    and how fitting, considering Pope Francis's first homily: "When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

    I would like that all of us, after these days of grace, might have the courage - the courage - to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Cross of the Lord: to build the Church on the Blood of the Lord, which is shed on the Cross, and to profess the one glory, Christ Crucified. In this way, the Church will go forward.

    My hope for all of us is that the Holy Spirit, that the prayer of Our Lady, our Mother, might grant us this grace: to walk, to build, to profess Jesus Christ Crucified. So be it."