Why I’m Glad the Pope is ‘Just a Man’

[ 19 ] December 26, AD 2011 |

“You actually follow the Pope?!” people have asked me, sure that this is just as silly as believing in fairies. “He’s just a man like you and me! What are you brainwashed?”

For many years, I wondered the same thing about Catholics. Before I entered the Church I questioned why so many people were devoted to a simple, strange old fellow in a white dress. After all, he’s just a man, right?

But today the fact that the Pope is “just a man” no longer keeps me away from the Church. In fact now it’s just the opposite; it’s one more reason I embrace her.

To understand why, we first need to turn to the Gospels. In Matthew 16, Jesus bestows a special power on Peter, his most prominent, yet brash disciple. Jesus explains that Peter is the Rock on which he would build his Church. In doing so he makes Peter the ambassador of his kingdom, vesting him with his own divine authority.

Yet what’s often neglected is how unsettling this choice was. Jesus had plenty of seemingly better options. He could have gone with the mystical John, the compassionate James, or the sharp-minded Matthew. Or what about Andrew, the first to believe? But Jesus nevertheless settled on Peter.

It didn’t take long for these concerns to be validated. Immediately after naming him the first Pope, Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with Satan. Later on, Jesus questions Peter’s faith and, if that wasn’t enough, Peter betrays Jesus three times during the most important moment of his life.

However Jesus seemed to know what he was doing. While Peter had a propensity to fail, his flops were always redeemed. Time and again they’d be trumped by his repentance and humility. For instance, Peter went from sinking in water to sailing the ship of the Church. He denied Jesus three times but then affirmed his love again and again and again. Most importantly, Peter fled from the Garden of Gethsemane but raced toward his martyrdom, which included a brutal upside-down crucifixion.

So what does this have to do with my love for the papacy? Well it all leads to one simple fact: the papacy started with “just a man” and since then has been nothing more. Now when I say ‘man’, I’m not talking about mere masculinity. I’m talking about the true humanity that we all share. The salty, tragic, wonderful mishmash of traits that makes us human; the mix of benevolence and evil and generosity and shame that fills us all.

A glance at the papacy down through the centuries reveals this spectrum. For example, we’ve had our fair share of salty popes. Pope John XII murdered scores of people and was caught in bed with another man’s wife. Pope Urban VI tortured dozens, if not hundreds, of conspirators. And Pope Stephen VI exhumed the dead body of his predecessor before throwing it in a river. The papacy, like mankind, has its warts.

But on the flipside, we’ve had many honorable popes. Think of men like Gregory the Great, Leo XIII, and Pope John Paul II (and, may I add, Pope Benedict XVI). Though they weren’t perfect by any measure, these men captained the Church well and brought light to the entire world. Like the repentant Peter, they each submitted their wills (and faults) to God. So the papacy, like mankind, also has its beauty.

The pope has always been “just a man”. He’s like us in all ways including sin. He falls, he triumphs, he suffers, he sacrifices, he makes mistakes yet seeks redemption. He understands all of our difficulties for they are his own and has moments of glory that seem far beyond this world.

And that all, of course, makes sense: the only way God could save a world of humans was to become one himself. Likewise, the only way a pope can lead a Church of humans is be one of the crowd.

So I’d agree with the skeptic who says the Pope is “just a man” like the rest of us. And for that very reason–for that surprising, sometimes disturbing fact–I’m glad.

(Image Credit: Topnews.in)

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Brandon-Vogt-e1313148635944.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at The Thin Veil. He is also the author of a new book titled The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, which was just released by Our Sunday Visitor.[/author_info] [/author]

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Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at BrandonVogt.com. He's also the author of The Church and Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet and the top hit on Google for "greatest evil in the world".
  • richard

    I always view the Pope as Christ’s vicar.

  • http://www.thinveil.net Brandon Vogt

    He’s definitely that, too.

  • Graham McKendry

    We have just held Christmas we thought of God becoming man to redeem us.A gift of salvation at such a cost to the Saviour,but free to Us to accept God be with all who seek for they shall find’
    Graham

  • Brother Rolf

    The pope gave a great homily on helping the poor. I wonder why he doesn’t help by selling a few million dollar paintings?

  • BHG

    Rolf: Do you remember Judas talking about the nard? It’s not either/or. The Catholic Church feeds more poor people every day than any other group on the planet. And it maintains a patrimony of art for the glory of God and for the edification of the faithful. We need to feed both body and soul and the Pope–and the Church–do a great deal in both areas.

  • Brother Rolf

    Thanks for the reply, but I don’t see a clear connection between anointing the Son of God for his death and the pope sitting on millions of dollars of art work while millions of children are starving. Is the art worth more than starving children?

    The Vatican could sell the art to museums. The Vatican’s art work could be just as secure in the world’s art museums and many more people could appreciate them.
    Remember when Jesus told the rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus didn’t tell him to give his possessions and money to the church. I think that this passage is more relevant.

    Matthew 19:21
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”
    Can you imagine Peter owning a valuable art object and not selling it to help the struggling Christian in Jerusalem? How is the Vatican’s policy different than the Pharisees’ “corban?”

    Mark 7:11-13
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    “But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.’”

  • Anglesey

    These artworks are looked after for all mankind. If they were sold who knows where they’d end up. As already stated the Church does immense work for the poor.

  • Brother Rolf

    Thank you for your comment. Can you answer this question, if you had control of the Vatican art, and your children were starving, would you sell a painting to a museum or let your children starve?

  • http://catholicboyrichard.wordpress.com Richard G Evans

    Brother Rolf your question is a “straw man argument” because the Vatican would not knowingly let any of their employee’s children starve in the first place. That is number one.

    Two, Catholic Relief Services is one of the largest humanitarian efforts in the entire world–I believe largest actually but not sure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Relief_Services So it is not as though the Church is not doing tremendous things already to help the poor and starving–and of course more can and should be done. The question is how? By selling art? Not in my view.

    Taking it to a secular level for a moment, should the museums of the world also each close their doors to alleviate the world’s poor and starving? Why not close each and every football field, and, instead of taking the ridiculous sums of money given to the players, send it to the poor instead? Truthfully it sounds right and proper. But here is the problem–once it is done, it cannot be undone. And that part of culture and history is then forever lost.

    And there would still be hundreds of thousands of poor and starving people who would remain. The Vatican art is not the real problem here. Nor is the NFL or other wealthy entertainment industries. The fault is that each of us can do a little more, and we do less instead. Supporting beautiful art or culture, whether sacred or secular, is part of society and preserving civlization. And so is supporting each needy person. It is always a balancing act.

    Servant of God Fulton Sheen used to contantly give away things, as well as money, to those who were in need. But he could not have done so if he had no audience from his television ministry, for that is how he received those gifts which he then shared in the first place. The real issue is each of us learning to become more generous, but not by the Vatican stripping down its 2000 year legacy to nothing and letting some other art dealers become rich, who might or might not share that wealth with others as the Church does.

    That is my thought.

  • Dan Grimm

    Brother Rolf: I can’t imagine what you are doing with a computer when so many people are hungry.

  • Brother Rolf

    Thanks for your thoughts I knew you would not be able to answer the questions. The question was if YOU had control of the Vatican art, would YOU watch your children starve rather than sell a painting to a museum?

    The Catholic Relief Services organization is a wonderful establishment, but costs the Vatican nothing. It is people such as you and me that contribute, not the Vatican.

    If the Vatican would sell its diamond tiaras and artwork it would not be lost to posterity. The Vatican could copy the precious books it has and sell the originals to museums.

    The other question no one will answer is if the first pope Peter had an expensive piece of art, would he refuse to sell it and help the poverty of the early Christians in Jerusalem. Paul went around Galatia and other areas collecting money for the Jerusalem Christians. Do you think if someone gave him an expensive Greek statue, he wouldn’t have sold it and gave the money to the Church?

  • Brother Rolf

    Dan Grim,
    I knew it was only a matter of time until I was attacked.

  • http://catholicboyrichard.wordpress.com Richard G Evans

    Actually Brother Rolf I think I did actually answer the question. You asked, if I had control (or the other readers) of the Vatican art, would I watch my children starve rather than to sell it? I called it a “straw man argument” because the Church has provided other means, such as CRS, Catholic Charities, and a host of other Apostolates such as “Sharing and Caring Hands” in the city of Minneapolis where I live, which incidentally had a huge personal donation of shoes for the homeless that they help directly from the present Holy Father around 3 years ago, to deal with those issues instead.

    But to your question very directly, if there was absolutely no such choices available, and all Christians in our era had to go underground such as they did in the 1st century, then of course any Christian, Pope included, would do whatever they had to in order to help the poor and starving and I am pretty confident that Pope Benedict would do so with no hesitation. But keep in mind that even Jesus had no issue with the not one but two separate times within the Gospels that a woman poured expensive oil on His feet, even when faced with exactly that same “straw man” argument by a number who were present. And my understanding is that this oil, in that day and age, was worth a literal year’s wages. By today’s standards it was then at least a $100,000 “waste” but yet Jesus had no issue with it as long as other provisions were being given for the poor, and they were.

    Bottom line–we honor God both by the beauty of the Church, including her art, and by also giving to the needy around us. Neglecting neither. Again it is a question of balancing the two.

  • Anil Wang

    Brother Rolf, there was an apostle that agreed with you that things that give glory to God should be sold and given to the poor. His name was Judas (John 12:4-8).

    Like it or not, God does want us to worship in beautiful places. Look at the details for the Ark of the Covenant. God goes into excruciating details on how he want it to be built, and just for your edification, Moses repeats each and every detail again to his people. It’s one of the most boring parts of the Bible to read, but it’s there to show us something important.

    For the record, the Vatican doesn’t buy art. It is donated and the Vatican keeps it in trust. As such, it would be a betrayal of trust to sell something given for posterity to make a quick buck. Secular analogies exist. Parks (at least in Canada) are donated to the city for public enjoyment with the expectation that the parks will not be used for any other person. Over time, property prices increase and selling the public parks could net cities a lot of money that they could use to pay down debts. But if they do sell, they would be immoral.

    As for, “The Vatican could copy the precious books it has and sell the originals to museums.”. The Vatican *has* made copies. Most ancient books that would have been lost to time have been copied by the Vatican over and over again. The originals and all subsequent copies provide a witness to the accuracy of all current copies. One can’t just make a copy and sell the originals (most likely to private collectors who will keep it in their vaults), since you will not be able to verify the accuracy of the copies.

    Also for the record, if you look at Vatican city finances, they break even. The art takes money to keep from deteriorating….money that is almost exactly the same about they get for tourism.

    Also for the record, in World War I, the Vatican almost depleted their treasury in charitable aid ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Benedict_XV ).

    The Vatican does have priorities to help people in need, but there needs to be a balance. As previously stated, the state could use all tax dollars to feed the poor instead of “wasting” money. We don’t need to fund NASA when we can feed the poor. We don’t need to build roads when we could feed the poor. We don’t need parks when we can feed to poor. We don’t need to build roads when we can feed to poor. We don’t need to pay for police when we can feed the poor. You get the picture.

    Yes, a city might have to give up all these things to feed the poor (e.g. in a natural disaster), but this cannot be the normal state of affairs.

  • George C King

    I find this whole argument specious. Just because a man is elected to the level of Pope, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, etc., doesn’t make him owner of the art in Vatican City any more than he owns St. Peter’s Basilica. He can no more sell the art than sell any of the structures of the Vatican. He is the caretaker. All the physical structures, art work, libraries belong to the Church and are not the personal property of he Pope.

  • http://catholicboyrichard.wordpress.com Richard G Evans

    Great point George…and back to the original post, which we have curiously veered off from just a bit, Brandon’s entire article was and is to point out the fact that the Holy Father is a gift to the Church–and we to him hopefully! May we be loyal sons and daughters of, as my priest says, a “perfect Church made up of imperfect people.” Amen.

  • Ink and Quill

    Also, I’m pretty sure that Jesus Himself pointed out, “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me.” It’s in the same scene as the woman who poured her oil over his feet. The entire scene is in Matthew 26:6-16. The point here is that there will always be poor and hungry mouths to feed, but opportunities for beauty and other good works are much rarer and should be taken.

    Another thing I would like to mention is that Soviet Russia underwent the sort of “church destruction” being described by Brother Rolf. Since it was technically an atheist regime, many of the churches were looted and their precious vessels and artwork were sold off “for the people.” The result? Once that money was gone, people were still hungry, and they had no beauty to comfort them. And a lot of history was lost that way. Art museums, churches, and other institutions of beautiful objects exist “for the people”–to feed more than their stomachs. People need beauty to nourish their souls. It’s extremely important. I’d consider it a favour to all those who make pilgrimages to the Vatican that St. Peter’s and the Museum both remain beautiful and wondrous.

    ~Ink

  • Dan Grimm

    Brother Rolf: Not attacking you, any more than you are attacking the Pope. My point is that there may be reasons to hang on to something valuable even though you recognize that many people have serious needs.

  • Benjamin

    As interesting as this false dichotomy and strawman (well said, Mr. Evans) argument is, I would like to speak further to the point of Mr. Vogt. Only to say, first, that the reflection was very beautiful. Second, and finally, that there is one small theological inaccuracy. Mr. Vogt stated, in relation to what it means to be human, being human is charactarised by “the mix of benevolence and evil and generosity and shame that fills us all.” We should be precise is saying that evil does not properly qualify what it means to be human. Otherwise, we should have to say that Christ our Lord was not fully human, since he was “like us in all things save sin.” The woundedness of our human nature is just that, woundedness of a nature. Thus (and this is a side point), although our Lord did take upon Himself nature in its post-lapsarian state, He did not take to Himself a “mix of benevolence and evil” because this is not properly human nature. To say that evil is part of human nature is to posit a Lutheran conception of man’s nature, which is as much to say a non-Catholic understanding of nature, the fall, and grace.

    Peace and goodness

    –”Ben”