You might have had someone say to you, “You Catholics, why do you follow the Pope? Just read the Bible, it'll tell you everything you need to know.” You may have even heard it on the radio or TV, or read it in a pamphlet or book. You may have also had a fellow Catholic say, “Why would I want to follow the Pope? He's old and out of touch with the real world. We need to make the Church relevant. He can't do that.” As the Gospel reading today shows, however, we cannot afford to be so dismissive of the Pope, but need to follow him and his teachings.
Why is the Pope so important? We're all very aware of the popularity of the Pope, especially as shown in his recent visit to New York City and Washington DC, and in the World Youth Day celebration in Sydney, Australia, but why are Catholics, young and old, flocking from around the world just to get a glimpse of the 81 year old German theologian? These are the questions frequently being asked by the news media throughout the world. When looking at the Papacy from a secular mindset, especially when looking at the present office holder, the consistent popularity makes no sense. He's not flashy, he's not risqué, he's not even very good with feel-good, sound bite speaking. It's hard to understand from a secular mindset why the Papacy continues to be an important aspect in Catholic life.
From the viewpoint of Catholics, however, the importance of the Pope stands out in today's Gospel. Jesus wasn't merely content with developing a community of believers who would go out and spread his Gospel message. Instead, Our Lord wanted to establish a Church, a structure that would be the Body of Christ. At the head of this Church, Our Lord placed one of his apostles, Simon bar Jonah, a simple fisherman, to lead in his place. While Jesus is the head of the Church, Simon, now known as Cephas – known in English as Peter, but more accurately translated as Rock – became Our Lord's earthly representative. This representative was promised that he, as the Rock, would be the foundation for Our Lord's Church upon earth. In return, Peter would receive the power to bind and loose, and would inherit the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
To this day, Peter is frequently depicted holding a pair of keys, so what is the big deal about the keys, and binding and loosing? As we see in the first reading, this is a symbolism that goes deep into the history of the Jewish people. Within the Kingdom of Israel, there was a position frequently known as the steward, translated in today's reading as the “master of the palace”. Part of his job was to ensure that the palace would be safe from attacks by controlling who could enter or leave, as he had the keys that could lock or unlock the palace gates. He also had the authority, granted to him by the King of Israel, the control the daily affairs within the palace, freeing the king to focus on the larger affairs of the nation. This was obviously a very important role, which also brought great responsibility and authority.
With Peter and his successors, the Popes, the keys symbolize the authority given to the Papacy by Our Lord. The Pope is not merely a figurehead, but has the authority and responsibility to speak to the world on behalf of Our Lord. Now, this doesn't mean that everything that the Pope says comes directly from God. For example if the Pope decided to speak about his preference in music – Classical, if you're curious – he would be merely describing his opinion. When speaking about matters of faith and morals, however, the Pope is exercising his authority to speak as the representative of Christ. This is what it means for the Pope to be speaking infallibly, which means without error, and obligates us to submit to the teaching of the Pope. By this speaking authority, the Pope is able to bind and loose the faithful, leading and teaching us as Our Lord wishes.
As Catholics, we are to hold the Papacy in high regard. Not all Popes were totally above reproach morally, but all Popes follow in the position of St. Peter, to lead and guide the Church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, may Pope Benedict XVI and his successors continue to guide the Church until Our Lord returns again.