In his most important address yet to the bishops gathered for the Vatican Synod on the Family, Pope Francis reasserted his authority Saturday, reminding the bishops that the synod operates “not only with Peter, but also under Peter.”
“The synodal path culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome,” Francis said, who is “called to teach as ‘Pastor and Teacher of all Christians,’ not from his own personal convictions, but as supreme witness of the faith of the whole Church.”
Although the Pope gave a nod to proposals of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI for a rethinking of the exercise of the papacy, he left no doubt regarding who is calling the shots.
The pope, Francis said, guarantees “the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, the Gospel of Christ and the Church’s tradition.”
“The fact that the synod always operates with Peter and under Peter—thus, not only with Peter but also under Peter—is not a limitation of freedom but a guarantee of unity,” Francis said.
“In fact, by the Lord’s will, the pope is the perpetual and visible sign and foundation of the unity, both of the bishops and the multitude of the faithful,” he said. So the bishops are united to the Bishop of Rome through episcopal communion, “and at the same time hierarchically subject to him as Head of the College,” he added.
At the same time, Francis said, this hierarchy, unlike that of the powerful of this world, must be understood as an “upside-down pyramid,” with the vertex at the bottom rather than the top. Those who exercise authority are called “ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, “they are the smallest of all,” he said.
And just as Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Francis said, “the successor of Peter himself is nothing but the servant of the servants of God (servus servorum Dei).”
For the disciples of Jesus, Francis insisted, “the only authority is the authority of service, and the only power is the power of the cross.”
And so, he continued, in a “synodal Church,” the Pope “is not by himself above the Church, but within her as a baptized member among the baptized” and “a bishop among the bishops.”
And yet he is also called as Peter’s successor “to guide the Church of Rome that presides in love over all the Churches.”
As the Bishop of Rome, I know well that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all Christians, he said. “I am convinced that in this, I have a particular responsibility” and must seek “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation,” he said, quoting Pope John Paul II.
Despite his forceful reaffirmations of the centrality of the role of the Pope in the Church, Francis also spoke of a need for greater “decentralization” and an increased role for ecclesiastical provinces and regions, special councils, and especially episcopal conferences in the governance of the Church.
In a synodal Church, he said, “it is not appropriate for the pope to replace the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization.’”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.