Once there was an American tourist traveling on a European steamship; the vessel set out into the Mediterranean Sea from the French port of Marseilles. On the second day of the journey, a huge black mountain seemed to rise up from the sea, and the tourist asked a member of the crew, “What’s that?” The crewman responded, “That is the Rock of Gibraltar.” The American stared at it in wonder, for he had heard of the famous Rock of Gibraltar. He remembered a story from Greek mythology, in which it was referred to as one of the Pillars of Hercules, and recalled instances in history in which it had served as an impregnable fortress, and even reflected that an American insurance company used the image of Gibraltar as its logo and urged it customers to “own a piece of the rock.” It was almost a mystical experience for the American tourist to see the famous Rock of Gibraltar—but then he noticed something strange, and he asked the crewman, “What’s that great white sheet spread over the side of the mountain?” The seaman explained, “Some years ago the great rock started to crumble, so the English, who own Gibraltar, created a great concrete slab on the side of the mountain to keep it from falling apart” (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 3, #329).
Given enough time, even the greatest, best-known, and most imposing mountains on earth will crumble or fade away—but Jesus has given us a rock that will last until the end of time, a sure foundation for faith that’s utterly reliable. St. Peter and his successors represent Christ’s presence on earth and guarantee that the Church always remains true to His teaching—and if we humbly submit to this authority, we are assured of finding the path that leads to Heaven.
Because of our fallen human nature, it’s extremely difficult for persons in authority to avoid the temptation of abusing their power; leaders usually develop inflated egos, and tend to identify the supposed good of their people with their own personal desires and well-being; their once-noble intentions can easily be corrupted. It is only through the power of God that this temptation can be overcome, for as St. Paul says, the depths of His riches and wisdom and knowledge are beyond imagination; those who are rooted in divine truth will not be undone by their own human weakness. The Book of Isaiah (22:19-23) describes two persons in authority; one was filled with divine grace, but the other was not. Shebna, the master of the palace, served as the equivalent of a prime minister; he decided who was allowed in to see the king, and he had many perks of office: a fine uniform, private chariots, and a key to the palace which he wore around his neck as a sign of his authority. However, the Lord announced through the prophet Isaiah that because Shebna had misused his power, it would be taken away from him and given instead to Eliakim, a humble man capable of being filled with divine grace; this new master of the palace would use his authority to protect the interests of the common people, thus serving as a peg fixed firmly in place. This reference, of course, points to Our Lord’s appointment, some 700 years later, of St. Peter as the leader of the Church. Though a weak and sinful man, Peter would be strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit, and his authority to bind and loose on matters of faith, morals, and Church discipline would ensure religious unity and the certainty of salvation for Catholics who genuinely put their faith into practice.
This same promise has also applied to all the popes in the Church’s history, a virtually unbroken line that stretches back almost 2000 years to the time of Christ Himself. While there’ve been some bad and even wicked popes, and others who’ve been foolish or incompetent, not one of them has ever taught heresy or spoken falsely on matters of faith and morals. This reality of papal infallibility is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit—and when the popes exercise their authority with genuine concern for the needs of humanity, especially the poor and the lowly, their leadership is usually far superior to that of worldly rulers and governments. The history of the papacy over the last century provides ample proof of this. Exactly 100 years ago, St. Pius X warned that the outbreak of World War I would be an unprecedented disaster, and he was right—but the nations of Europe ignored him in their rush to war. During the War, Pope Benedict XV made fair and realistic proposals for peace, but these were rejected, and after the war, the victorious Allies would not allow the Vatican to have any role in the peace negotiations; as a result, the harsh Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany merely sowed the seeds for an even worse war barely twenty years later. Between the wars, Pope Pius XI was an unyielding opponent of Nazi Germany, but Western leaders were slow to follow his lead, and a terrible yet easily-preventable conflict followed. During World War II, Pope Pius XII made heroic, behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of the Jews, helping rescue over 800,000 of them; if the Allied governments had been equally concerned for their fate, many more might have been saved. More recently, St. John Paul II—to the amazement of most world leaders—helped set into motion the chain of events which led to the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe from over forty years of Soviet occupation and domination, resulting in political and religious freedom for many millions of people.
The pope has the moral authority and prestige to serve as a true spokesman and advocate for all humanity. This is often true in a worldly sense, and always true in a religious sense—and so Catholics should have no hesitation in respecting and following papal teachings and pronouncements. No other religion can claim the divinely-protected and inspired leadership given to Catholicism, for the Lord Jesus wanted to ensure that once He had returned to Heaven, His saving truth and grace would always be accessible to those who sincerely desired it. This great and essential spiritual resource is only available through the pope and the bishops in union with him. Worldly power, as symbolized by the Rock of Gibraltar, will pass away, but Jesus created His Church to stand firm until the end of time—and the way we can ensure we are truly part of this Church is to remain always in union with the successor of St. Peter.