In my priesthood, I have been blessed with the opportunity to study in Rome as a seminarian and for my doctorate in theology as well as now being afforded the opportunity to serve as a seminary formator and professor here in Rome. When I encounter a set of readings which feature Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, I get very excited, because Peter is my neighbor! 

For me, the Pope is not a distant theological concept. He really is my neighbor currently. As I write this, I am looking out my window and I see the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica nearby. When I pray the Eucharistic Prayer at Holy Mass, being assigned here in Rome, I say “For Francis, our pope and bishop,” for he is the local bishop here in Rome. This is my experience of the papacy, but, to be honest, it isn’t the experience of many.

For most of us, the Pontiff is a figure in the news, someone for whose intentions we pray for as we begin our rosary and whose name we hear in the Eucharistic Prayer. And, for some of us, when we read of developments in the Church, of statements uttered by Pope Francis, we can grow angry or confused and long for the days of Benedict and/or John Paul (or vice-versa, resent the days of Benedict and/or John Paul and view these days as the halcyon days of the Catholic Church).

We can almost view the Papacy as a quasi-political election, treating the Holy Fathers as if they are part of a political party, representing one side of the aisle or the other. Of course, we must be honest. These men are human; they are flawed, and the men who elected them, the cardinals, are flawed too, as we have sadly seen played out in recent years. But we can’t forget who is guiding the Church in all of this: the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity — God the Holy Spirit.

Truly, it is the Holy Spirit who is in charge. When we look at the Church, who is the spotless Bride of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, we must recall that she is impeccable, sinless, although we who make up the Church, we are sinners. To examine the Church through the lens of the political is to lose sight of who she really is — The Mystical Body of Christ. And to view the Pope as a political figure is to do exactly the same. Whether he be known as John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis, what really matters is that he is the successor of Saint Peter, that flawed, proud, yet humbled fisherman, who professes his love and dedication to his Lord and Master on the shore of Galilee in the Gospel we proclaim this day in the 21st chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. 

Peter is that man whom the Lord knew, inside and out. He knew his weaknesses, his braggadocio, his genuine fear. He knew that it would be Simon Peter who, in his darkest hour, would flee and then deny that he even knew him three times. He also knew that it would be this Cephas, this Rock, upon whom He would build the Church, who would perform mighty deeds and powerfully witness before the Sanhedrin and eventually be led to a place where he did not want to go, being crucified on the Hill of Janus in Rome, upside-down, as Simon, now known as Peter, deemed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord and Master. The Acts of the Apostles, which we proclaim at Mass as our first reading in the Season of Easter (Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41), testify to this remarkable transformation that the Lord has made in the life of the Fisherman of Galilee, this man who knows that he is a sinful man, but who also knows that he is loved by the One Who is Love Himself. 

That ministry that is Peter’s is carried out today by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has taken the name Francis. Pray for him daily by name. Let the Pope not just be a distant figure in a faraway country but a real and true Pontiff, which means bridge. The Pope is meant to precisely be that bridge, that patriarch, that true and real Holy Father, that center of unity for all Christians. Pray for his ministry and for his person. If you notice, that is the one thing that Pope Francis asks again and again in all his public talks. “Pray for me.” He knows that he is weak and that he cannot do anything without the grace of God. Peter, that simple fisherman, is there now, still in Rome on that hill. Don’t neglect him in your prayers.

Fr. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State and as a professor of Theology and Church History at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.