Who is the Pope?

Pope Francis

The anticipation is growing for the visit of Pope Francis in just a few short weeks. Indeed, from the moment he first greeted the world from the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, our Holy Father has generated excitement.

He has been featured on the covers of many magazines, including Rolling Stone, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, he very nearly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and millions of people have come out to see him, pray with him, and celebrate Mass with him during his apostolic journeys. His visit here in the United States will be no exception.

Why is Pope Francis so popular? Why does he continue to have this drawing power even when admittedly not everybody lives out the faith fully?

To be sure, part of it is because he is Francis, a man with an engaging personality. He is a modest, good, gentle pastor and people sense that he is “one of us.” But it is more than personality. He is popular also because he is Pope. And that raises the question of: What is the Pope? Why is he so important?

Around the magnificent and imposing Michelangelo dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, above the place where tradition and excavation tell us Peter himself is buried, is the Latin inscription proclaiming the words of Jesus to Simon the fisherman: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

Saint Peter was the first pope, and the Lord established his Church on this foundation rock to ensure that each subsequent generation would have the opportunity to hear of his kingdom, to know his Gospel and to receive his invitation to follow him. Jesus chose him and the other Apostles and charged them and their successors with the responsibility of teaching the true faith, making sure that it is presented clearly and applied it to the problems and needs of the day.

The word “pope” is derived from the Italian “papa” or father, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Peter acting consistently as a father in his role as chief shepherd. When Peter was martyred in Rome during the time of the persecution by the Emperor Nero, a successor as pope was chosen, Saint Linus. When he died, another successor was chosen, and so on through the ages.

Today, Peter bears the name Francis, who has his own particular style, but the Petrine ministry and teaching remain the same. The pope is the one we turn to when we want to know what it is that Jesus says to us, and he offers us direction and guidance so that we will be able to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our faith.

With this understanding that the pope, as Successor to Peter, is the touchstone that keeps us in contact with the truth of divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles, an unbroken line of continuity, who is this particular pope? Who is Francis?

The former Archbishop of Buenos Aires was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. When asked by a journalist to describe himself, he responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner” (America magazine, September 25, 2013). Pope Francis’ words are not empty humility but the true posture required of any follower of Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of a savior.

This description of himself also explains our Holy Father’s great emphasis on God’s mercy and our need to go out to others, particularly those who are wounded in this world, and bring them an experience of God’s merciful love. This humility, together with Pope Francis’ example of living the Gospel in a great simplicity, is a beacon of hope and encouragement to people all over the world.

Our Holy Father is also the first Pope who comes from the New World. The word “Catholic” is from the Latin meaning “universal,” and to have a Chief Shepherd from the Americas demonstrates how the focus of the Church is worldwide. The Church is involved in and concerned with every part of the globe, with providing an outreach and care for people with many types of needs, both material and spiritual.

This is an exciting time as we look forward to the arrival of Pope Francis. This great joy and hope come from the continuity that he has with Peter and therefore Jesus Christ, and also from the freshness in which he lives the Gospel – ever ancient, ever new.