When I was in University I always used to hear the following phrase from Protestants: “Why do you guys make such a big deal about the Pope? He’s just a man.” No Catholic would object to the statement that the Pope is just a man. He certainly plays an important role but in the end, he’s just a man.
Throughout the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church, the Pope has surprisingly played a very small role in the eyes of the average Catholic. If you were a 7th Century Irish monk, what role would the Pope play in your life? True, you’d say his name during the liturgy but beyond that, there is not much influence. Obviously, for some figures the role of the Pope is more important to them. This is true for people like St. Augustine of Canterbury who evangelized England on orders from Pope Gregory the Great himself. Others who have been in contact with the Pope are affected but for 99% of Catholics in the world, the Pope has no immediate affect on their religious or secular life.
A few months ago I was on a walk. I was crossing a bridge over a river in my city when I saw a photographer and started up a conversation. It turns out that he was from Ireland but moved to Canada when he was 5 years old. That would explain the lack of accent. We had a good discussion about Sebastian Barry novels as I was reading one at the time.
He told me about his website where he sold his photography. I mentioned that I had a website as well, though I blogged about Catholic issues. He then said: “Pope Francis nearly got me back into the Church.” This statement puzzled me. This man was a typical Irishman. Born Catholic, but lapsed somewhere along the way. However, Pope Francis almost got him back to worshipping.
Pope Francis is not the Church. I actually caught myself thinking like the Protestants. I felt like telling this gentleman that the Pope was just a man. Yes, Pope Francis is the current Pontiff but he won’t hold that office forever. Eventually he’ll pass on and a new man will assume that role. Every Pope dies and is succeeded. Pope Francis will be no exception.
Anyone who considers joining the Catholic Church shouldn’t factor who the current Pope is in their decision. This is because while the man who holds that office changes, the Catholic faith does not. Pope Francis inherited the same Catholic faith as the next Pope will, and the one who will come after him.
The Pope plays almost no role in my faith life. Yes, I acknowledge him as the Vicar of Christ on Earth who makes important decisions when needed but in terms of my personal faith, there is almost no influence. In fact, there hasn’t been an infallible Papal decree since 1950. My faith revolves around prayer, mass, sacraments, the rosary, Bible study, hagiography and other devotions. Obviously I want this Irishman to come home to the Church but he doesn’t seem to have an understanding of what the Church is. He doesn’t have an understanding about what the Pope is either. My old Protestant friends were certainly right about one thing. The Pope is just a man.