First, the pope is bishop of Rome. Revered as the place where both Peter and Paul gave their lives for Jesus Christ, Rome emerged as the Church’s preeminent see (diocese). Today, through a vicar general (Cardinal Camillo Ruini), Pope Benedict looks after the pastoral needs of this city and surrounding area, at once ancient and modern. As frequently as he can, he visits parishes in Rome and occasionally meets with the clergy of Rome.
As successor to St. Peter, the pope continues the mandate that Christ gave to Peter, a mandate that extends to the end of time — namely, to be the “visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church.”
Jesus made Peter the recognizable head of the apostles and commanded him “to confirm the faith of his brothers” (see Lk 22:32). Until the end of the world, the Lord will continue to provide a universal shepherd for his Church. He will empower this shepherd to foster the Church’s unity — “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). To fulfill this mission, the Lord has given the pope “full, supreme, immediate and universal power.” As Vatican II teaches, “…our Lord made Simon Peter alone the rock and key-bearer of the Church (Mt 16:18-19) and appointed him shepherd of the whole flock (Jn 21:15)” (Lumen Gentium, 22).
This means that the pope can intervene in dioceses throughout the world and reserve various matters to himself for the common good of the whole Church. Let it be emphasized that he fulfills this mission primarily by teaching the faith — sometimes in extraordinary ways (ecumenical councils, solemn definitions), but most often in encyclical letters, exhortations or his Wednesday audiences. It is by proclaiming and teaching the faith that people are led to pray and to share in the sacramental life of the Church. It is on the basis of the Church’s faith that she is governed.
The pope teaches authoritatively on matters of faith and morals, not as a private person, but by virtue of his office. He is endowed with the gift of “the sure charism of truth” so that he can guard and promote all that God has revealed. Both Vatican I and Vatican II teach that “when the pope, using his full authority as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, defines or states precisely doctrines on faith and morals, and presents them as teachings that must be held true by the whole Church, then, by the divine assistance promised to St. Peter, he teaches with that infallibility with which Christ willed his Church to be endowed” (The Gift of Faith by Archbishop Donald Wuerl and others, Our Sunday Visitor, 2001).
But the pope does not oversee the Church alone. He is the successor of St. Peter just as bishops throughout the world are successors to the apostles. When we think of bishops collectively, we speak of the “college” of bishops. This college is united with the pope in the supreme governance of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “Just as by the Lord’s will, St. Peter and the other apostles constituted one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman pontiff as the successor of Peter and the bishops as successors of the apostles are joined together” (Lumen Gentium, 22).
Collectively, bishops united with the successor of Peter are entrusted with the care of the whole Church. The college of bishops, though, does not act alone but as united with the pope, whether assembled together or separated by great distances. In their individual dioceses, bishops exercise full and complete governance in communion with the Holy Father. After all, dioceses (called “particular churches”) are not mere “branch offices” of the universal Church but local “incarnations” of it. Peter’s successor is always present as a bishop fully exercises his responsibilities to teach, sanctify and govern. The pope’s role does not diminish the local bishop’s role but rather strengthens and confirms it so that the Church in its diversity can be united in faith, worship and service.
Pope Benedict’s U.S. visit will greatly encourage and strengthen the bishops of our country, as indeed it will strengthen priests, deacons, religious and the laity.