On the left side the Via Appia, a few hundred yards east of the ancient city walls of Rome there is a small church. Popular tradition has it that in the first century AD, St. Peter while fleeing from the likelihood of martyrdom, encountered a pilgrim walking toward the city that he recognized as Christ. “Domine, quo vadis?” Peter asked , “ Sir, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Shamed by this encounter, Peter returned to the city where he met death on the cross.
As Catholics, we take for granted that the Pope should play a role on the world stage. But it is easy to overlook the fact that the ministry of St. Peter, from the very beginning has been linked to suffering.
The pontificate of John Paul II, was one of a world leader who gave himself unceasingly to the service of the Gospel.
To the end he served the Church both in public and in private– but at great personal cost. During his papacy, John Paul II traveled to over 160 countries. It is estimated that he spoke before live audiences of more people than anyone in history. The eye-stopping nature of these events and his message of Christian hope indelibly etched this figure in our minds. But there is a somber tedium to being the servant of unity that is easy to overlook.
The Roman Catholic communion is composed of some 2000 dioceses. Every five years, the bishop of each diocese is required to go to Rome to meet with the Pope and heads of the major Vatican offices. Bishops from different regions meet with the pope in groups as large as twenty at a time, but then are given individual time with the Holy Father, typically a quarter of an hour apiece. As John Paul II’s health failed, these conversations about the issues impacting local churches became shorter, but they still took place until the very last months.
At an earlier period, John Paul II, spoke eloquently of pain. “Christ, does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering,” he wrote in 1984. “But before all else he says, ‘Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world’.” John Paul II spoke from personal experience.
The dimension of suffering because of and on behalf of the Church is not limited to the pope. It touches every Catholic believer. Though we seldom speak of this pain, it is always there.
As Catholics, we boast that our Church is a universal one. But such unity exacts a price. The religious insights of Catholics in India, Africa or South America are often far different than our own. Issues such a birth control, ordination of women priests, marriage and divorce, are not the pressing issues in these societies that they are in parts of our own. The Pope, as universal pastor, must speak with a single voice for and on behalf of all Catholics, and this broader message of Christ is often difficult to accept or understand. None of this is easy.
The history of the papacy is history is a continual procession of conflicting currents within the Church, and the efforts of successive pope maintain oneness of faith and communion of faith come at great personal cost.
We honor Pope John Paul II as a remarkable human being, but our acceptance of his ministry and that of every pope, ultimately only makes sense through the eyes of faith. When Peter, as the legend tells us, met Christ on the Via Appia, he returned to the Eternal City to endure death on the cross. As a Catholic, we are also — each in our own way — to walk in the footprints of Peter.