Many in our own day and age are enthralled with all things medieval, from history, to literature, to the movies. There is a fascination with the days of old when kings and queens, princes and princesses, lord and ladies walked the world, and castles and keeps dotted the landscape in abundance. Have you ever wondered what happens when a king is not present on his throne? Who is left in charge in his stead while he is away? Imagine a great kingdom in which the monarch is gone for weeks, months, and even for years. What would happen to such a land if no preparations and arrangements were made for such a lengthy absence? What would become of a kingdom left to its own devices, bereft of someone to oversee the affairs of such a place? Kingdoms would fracture and crumble under the disunity, division and discord that would ensue in the absence of an authoritative leader.
The Catholic Church is a kingdom. But thankfully, it is not a kingdom left to its own devices. The monarch who reigns over the Church was divinely foresighted. Jesus is our king. Jesus is the king of kings, for he is also our God and Savior.
Indeed, he is our eternal Davidic high king. While he is truly with us, as he promised, above all in the real presence of the Eucharist until the end of time, something we recognize with the eyes of faith, the fact remains that we await Jesus’ second fully visible coming in glory at the end of time. In the Old Testament, it was promised to David that his kingdom would have no end. During the long years of Israel’s exile when David’s Kingdom seemed to crumble, it was hard for those that lived then to see how such a promise of God would come to fulfilment. When the Word was made flesh, and his life, death, and resurrection played out, it became clear that God becoming man as a descendant of King David, dying and rising again to reign forever, brought this promise to fruition in a way beyond anything anyone had expected.
What has sometimes been forgotten, however, are other elements of the Old Testament Davidic Kingdom, including that of the Prime Minister and of the Queen Mother. For the People Israel, the Kingdom of David was overseen by a Prime Minister when the ruling monarch was away. It is also a fact of history and Sacred Scripture that the ruling queens were not the wives of the king, but the mothers of the kings. It is partly from this reality that we see the Blessed Virgin Mary’s own queenship take shape. Jesus is the eternal Davidic king, therefore, his mother Mary is queen in accord with reality of the Davidic Kingdom.
Ultimately, it would be seen that the office of Queen Mother was and is held by Mary. And what of the office of Prime Minister? The Gospel of Matthew demonstrates to us that Jesus saw the office of Prime Minister as essential to the building up, maintaining, and spreading of his kingdom in his grand, divine, designs. How does this manifest to us down to our own day?
In the midst of his public ministry, Jesus began preparing the Apostles for the reality that he would suffer and die for mankind. Even while he was laying the foundation for his kingdom, he makes plans for someone to rule in his place when he goes back to the Father. He would not be fully present to his disciples through the ages in the same manner he was present to those who lived and walked with him; the Church in its earliest formative years would not have him walking among them visibly.
But Jesus did leave a visible kingdom, built upon the foundation of the Holy Spirit for a foundation, here on Earth. In leaving this visible Church on Earth, he foresaw that it would slip into chaos and competing factions if there was no unifying thread. But what was that unifying thread to be?
Going back in time, centuries before Christ, In the Old Testament, in Isaiah 22, we see Eli’akim replacing Shebna as the Prime Minister of the Davidic kingdom, “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Is 22) For those who lived in the Davidic Kingdom, the image of keys and of having power to open and shut referred to one thing: The office of the Prime Minister. This same scripture passage leaves Christians of our day thinking of St. Peter, and for good reason.
Today, Christians universally recognize St. Peter, but what is not so universal is the manner in which Christians view him. Protestant Christianity recognizes Peter as one of the Apostles, and typically envision him as standing guard at the gates of Heaven. Within American culture, many jokes make reference to settings in which St. Peter is standing at the “pearly gates”.
For Catholic Christianity, St. Peter is recognized truly as the first pope, the first pope to have possessed the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, and it is he, and his successors that have led, as the earthly representative of Christ, for 20 centuries. While there is widespread familiarity amongst Catholics regarding Jesus referring to Peter as the Rock upon which he will build his Church, and in which we famously here that the gates of Hell will never prevail against Christ’s Church, it is in the same scene of Matthew Chapter 16:18-19, in which we observe Jesus proclaiming to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This sounds very much like Isaiah 22:22. Jesus was setting up Peter as his first prime minister. The image of the keys, of binding and loosing, strikes a chord today with anyone familiar with the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and acquainted with the history of Ancient Israel. What we must do is place ourselves in the shoes, or rather sandals, of these first Century fishermen, who heard Christ’s words first hand, and who would have quickly if not immediately realized that Jesus was installing Peter (and all popes thereafter) as the successive prime ministers of his Kingdom. Certainly, the popes are human beings, and among their ranks both great saints and great sinners are to be found. But through the office of the papacy, they bear the authority that all Catholics are bound to, in obediently accepting all that the Church teaches in the realm of faith and morals.
I am reminded that those who visit the beautiful St. Paul Outside the Walls Basilica in Rome are treated to a triumphant convergence of history and art. Along the upper interior walls of the Church, the painted image of each pope since, and including St. Peter, are arranged beautifully in chronological sequence. Before I left Rome when I was there in 2006, I even purchased a poster with those same depictions both as a souvenir of having visited that beautiful church, and more importantly, as an illustrated reminder that God knows human nature well. He always does what is best for us. He planned his Church, his Kingdom on Earth, to stand the test of time, replete with a succession of prime ministers to oversee and unify his people. In our popes, and in our bishops united to our pope, we have authoritative answers on questions of Faith and morals in a time where some deem that there are no universal truths. Meanwhile, Christians not recognizing the Pope attempt to explain that conflicting interpretations of the Bible and Christianity are either all somehow reconcilable, or else individually, yet in large numbers, make efforts to set themselves up as the bearers of the official interpretations of the Faith, thereby unintentionally demonstrating even more so the utmost importance of the office of the Pope to unite.
The office of Prime Minister has survived and thrived as long as Catholic Christianity itself, and is nearly 2000 years strong. The successive line of prime ministers, our popes, continue to shepherd Christ’s flock as his representatives on Earth until our Lord comes again. Pope Francis is now our 266th pope, and while there is much that is uncertain in life, we can trust to the fact that God does not leave us without a living, breathing representative on Earth while mankind awaits his return.