The holiness of his holiness

Pope-FrancisA none Catholic friend asked me why we address the Pope as his holiness; he was obviously not at home with that style at all. He argued vehemently against the idea and insist that only God is holy, no man is holy. He backed his argument with  scripture passages that actually prove that no man is holy. As it is written: There is no one who is righteous, not even one. Rom. 3:10. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 Jn. 1:8. These passages actually indicate that no man is holy and I believe the scripture.

I made my friend understand that I strongly believe that when the Church addresses the Pope as his holiness, she is not referring to the state of his soul but the office he occupies. He is the leader of the universal Church, the successor of Peter to whom Christ gave the keys of heaven, he is the vicar of Christ. The Pope is for us a priest, a bishop, a father and leader. But with us he is a man, a Christian, a Catholic and a co-pilgrim. Addressing him as “your holiness” shouldn’t scandalize us  but rather lead us into the mystery of God’s love; he is there not because he has never sinned but because God is holy and he loves his Church.

Peter, the first Pope obviously denied Christ, yet he was made the rock and his faith became the foundation of the Church; he was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 16:17-20). His mistakes were over looked and forgiven by the mercy and love of God. The Church will never be afraid to call the Pope “the holy father” because that office to which he has been chosen to occupy is holy. That is what the Church calls the “chair of Peter”;  Jesus himself  believes in the power  and authority of a “chair”. He warned his disciples to obey the scribes and the Pharisees, not because they are holy but because they sit on the “chair” of Moses (Mt. 23:3). They took over the office of Moses, a holy office. And even though they were considered as hypocrites by Jesus, yet he respected the office and commanded his followers to do the same.

The Pope occupies a holy office and by the virtue of his office we proudly call him “the holy father”. Though as I said earlier that I strongly believe that the Church is not referring to the state of his soul, I still however believe that personal holiness is possible. If God calls us to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16), then it is possible to live a holy life by God’s grace. God would not be calling us to live an impossible life; he calls and he gives the grace to answer.

This is not an attempt to defend the holiness of the holy father, but to simply let my friend and all those in his line of thought know that the Church proudly calls the Pope, the holy father.

Rev. Fr. Joel Okojie OSA

Joel Okojie is an ordained Catholic Priest in the Order of St. Augustine. He has been a Priest for over a decade. He served as pastor in two different parishes, he was one time Novice Master and a member of the Provincial Council of the province of St. Augustine of Nigeria, and he is currently on a mission in response to the needs of the Church in Canada.

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