Religion rarely dominates global news headlines, but Pope Benedict's resignation has proven a notable exception. The mainstream media, usually reluctant to focus on matters of faith, is watching and reporting with fascination as the Roman Catholic Church faces a historic and unprecedented transition. Thursday's coverage was particularly striking, as commentators repeatedly stated – in tones ranging from intellectual curiosity to intense anguish – that "the papacy is vacant" and "the seat of Saint Peter is empty" and "the church around the world is without a leader."
Social media is also flooded with analysis of these developments, and the official papal twitter account (@Pontifex), is even listed as "Sede Vacante." For the estimated 1.4 billion Catholics around the world, there does seem to be a sudden void. Some are responding with doubt and despair as the Catholic Church has encountered many tumultuous challenges in recent years, and others express anticipation and hope that a new Pope will usher in a renewed vision for the Vatican.
But amidst all the speculation, perhaps this is valuable time for Catholics – and for all of us who claim the name of Christ – to reflect and be reminded that there is indeed a leader who is always on His throne. A leader whose supremacy and sufficiency and strength are never in question. A leader who is seated in Heaven, and – even at this moment – is interceding to God the Father on our behalf.
Yes, believers must look beyond prominent people and formal institutions – however historic and impactful they may be – to the preeminent role of Jesus Christ as the true Head of the church.
With this in mind, how can we respond with clarity and courage, effectively contending for the faith and comforting our brothers and sisters during these times of transition?
Acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church.
The Bible continually calls believers to focus on the supremacy of Christ and the authority and inspiration of God's Word in every aspect of our lives, and highlights His role as the foundation of the church. In Colossians 1:18, the apostle Paul says, "And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy."
The apostle Peter himself also repeatedly affirms the transcendence and authority of Christ as the ultimate head, "who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Peter 3:22).
Recognizing that Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and sovereign leader in all things enables us to face turbulent transitions in human authority with peace and confidence.
Remember that we have direct access to God.
Whenever institutions and personalities assume a dominant position – no matter what form their authority may take – it can obstruct our view of Jesus Christ as the personal Savior and mediator to God the Father. As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 clearly states, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people."
The beauty of the Gospel is that God's gift of salvation is available directly to all who trust in Him through Christ, and believers can take comfort not only in our eternal security but also in the knowledge that our Savior is constantly praying and interceding for us as we experience life here on earth. "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (Hebrews 7:25).
Approach life with an eternal perspective.
The media in recent days has been quick to highlight the history of the Catholic Church and explore other major developments that have impacted the structure and scope of religious institutions worldwide. But instead of being discouraged or disillusioned by the many changes and challenges that have faced believers throughout the ages, we can take confidence in the knowledge that we serve a leader who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Our finite minds are often too easily distracted by temporal changes, and our own frailties cause us to be overly dependent on earthly leaders. These weaknesses threaten to take our focus away from the life to come, and to cloud our vision of Jesus Christ's current position at the right hand of God. As Hebrews 8:1-2 states, "Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being."
Rather than putting our hope in finite people and transient institutions, we must live in light of a higher calling and an eternal perspective, taking heart in Jesus' enduring reign and infinite power.
Yes, Jesus Christ – the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King – is always in office. And His seat will never be vacant.