In one of his rare moments of theological speculation, the media guru Marshall McLuhan is reputed to have said that if there were only two Catholics left in the world, one of them would have to be Pope.
Yet, in a world that derides all authority, where hierarchy as relational order is assumed to be a remnant of bygone days, is there truth to the claim that there can be no Catholicism without a Pope? … that there can be no “church” without her Bishop? And therefore, that hierarchical order is paradigmatic to the Catholic mindset?
Catholicism, when a healthy “incarnation” of the gospel in a Christian community, exists to manifest paradox, never rigid certainty; the desire for ultimate Truth, not its fullest appropriation; the wonder of trusting in the divine, even while being fastidiously realistic about the impoverished state of the world. It believes resolutely in the intrinsic potential for flourishing of every single human being, even while it is critical to a fault of all sins. It expects to be a symbol of heaven on earth, knowing full well that she herself is the harlot chosen to be Bride.
This “Catholic” tension is exemplified, above all else, in the spiritual leader, who lives, not just to fulfill his personal Christian call to holiness, but the particular vocation to be “head” in the person of Christ; to steer the flock along the narrow path of prudence that denies all worldly extremes of “certainty.” In their role of “headship” of the Church, Pope and Bishops, embody that paradox that Catholicism recognizes as the only real path to Truth—and notwithstanding the power and authority bestowed on them, they do so through their personal poverty.
All of us, even the most extraordinary, are broken. For this reason, we should not be surprised at the failure of Peter, the doubt of Thomas, the intransigence of Jesus’ female disciples, or even the betrayal of Judas. As Catholics, we embody them all. But in all this seeming chaos, a “pastoral presence”, the figure of Peter, remains absolutely necessary, because the Church remains called to be the “body of Christ”, to be “one” in holiness and spiritual lineage, even when spread across the world. The corporeal metaphor evokes this very paradox of unity-in-diversity, but that only makes sense when understood also as unity-under-one-leadership.
This power of “office” however, does not deny that other paradox: that the Shepherd himself is not only personally poor, but the lowliest of servants. The one anointed on the head with chrism is also the one from whom most is expected and whose life is most expendable. For while he pastures the sheep, he always knows that they are not his own: he is but a poor shepherd and the flock belong, not to him, but to his Master. Indeed, not only does he have no claim on the flock, but it is the Master’s Spirit that empowers the Pastor to fulfill his duty, and his duty till the end. Without that divine grace, he is truly nothing.
Likewise, the Christian community exists not through “unity” that is properly hers, but in that of the Spirit bestowed upon her. Just as the Spirit anoints with special power the “unworthy” who are chosen to give their life to the flock, so, ironically, the most “exemplary” devotion is of the Beloved Disciple, who stood unfailingly by his Master’s side and even took his mother home, but always in hiddenness and anonymity.
For such is the mutual recognition and respect of everyone’s gifts that binds the Church as one Body. The Rock loves the flock till death; the Beloved Disciple is the perfect symbol of the love binding the flock through his selfless inconspicuousness. But either way, whether in visibility or invisibility, whether as Shepherd, or as the many Master’s lambs who act as leaven in the world, all symbolize the great paradox that one must die for the community to thrive.