Can you name the largest megachurch in the world? Is it in San Antonio or Colorado Springs? Maybe Los Angeles or Orlando? Nope…it's in Rome. The world's largest megachurch is the Catholic Church.
Oh, I know I've stretched the comparison a bit, but only a tiny bit. The Catholic Church consists of the bishops' "particular churches" gathered around the pope, who is the universal pastor of the 1 billion plus Catholics. In a real sense, because of a common baptism, the Holy Father is the universal pastor of all Christians…whether they accept him or not.
Our current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, has a name and a history that lends itself to some wonderful terms of affection. We call him Papa Benedetto, Papa Ratzi, German Shepherd, B16, and many others. In this wonderful man we have come to admire and love these past three years, we see again the grace Our Lord bestowed on the Church when He established the papacy.
When the first non-Italian pope in 500 years succeeded St Peter in Rome as the Vicar of Christ, John Paul II, I was 13 years old. He reigned until 2005 when Benedict XVI took the helm of the Barq of Peter.
In those twenty-seven years, I learned a great deal about my faith through the example of the pope. It's remarkable that a man I never met nor ever saw in person could have such an effect on me. Certainly Pope John Paul II's command of the modern media was a big factor in his popularity. He used the media so expertly, that he made living out the Gospel seem so easy and simple — something everyone could aspire to doing. Yet, he proclaimed the same message his predecessors have proclaimed since St Peter: the Good News that Jesus Christ came to save us.
Pope Benedict has been a wonderful surprise from the dour enforcer we were told to expect. He is a kind and generous soul, as those who know him told us when he was elected. Benedict was a surprise in that he has been able to pick up so seamlessly from John Paul, and yet he brought his own style to the papacy. His first two encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and Spe Salvi (Saved By Hope) speak of a life spent in intimacy with God. Reading these two letters, one gets a sense that Pope Benedict has lived a life in contemplation of Really Big Ideas, and a life in quiet communion with God.
The Catechism reveals the purpose of the See of Peter: unity. The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful" (#883). It is through the unique ministry of the pope that we maintain our unity as a Church, because unified with the bishops, the pope maintains the Deposit of the Faith unmolested since the time of the Apostles. It's one of the reasons that we speak of the pope as "Successor of Peter" not the successor of his immediate predecessor.
When Pope Benedict arrives here in the USA this week, we will have a close-up opportunity to observe how his ministry brings unity to the Church. In his prayers, his celebration of the Holy Mass, and his smile we can hear the words of Christ he proclaims. His burden and joy is to shepherd the People of God toward a more full relationship with Jesus Christ. For a man whom the popular media called "rigid" and "conservative", Benedict has revealed himself to be a kindly grandfather we have all grown to love. A man who loves cats and used to walk St Peter's square talking to tourists surely has the soul of a saint.
During his visit, Pope Benedict will likely surprise "conventional wisdom" again and speak the Gospel with strength and clarity. We would do well to listen carefully.