Through his actions and words, Pope Francis has generated tremendous global interest in the papacy.

Last week, I was blessed to be in St. Peter’s Square while on a pilgrimage with folks from our archdiocese, including permanent deacons and their wives, for the general papal audience.

One hundred thousand people from every corner of the world eagerly gathered under a spectacular Roman sun to see and listen to Pope Francis. He did not disappoint. Riding around the square in his Popemobile for 45 minutes, Francis frequently stopped to kiss babies, hug a person with a disability or greet a particular pilgrimage group.

The energy that goes out from him to crowds is reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s early years. In his address, Pope Francis talked about the apostolic nature of the church, urging us to be apostles through prayer and the spread of the Gospel. It was quite a morning.

The papacy is the oldest institution in the world, traced to Simon Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. In reply, Jesus hands over the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to him, a symbol of Peter’s primacy and role of pastoral leadership, which he will later exercise in Rome. When Peter was martyred, crucified upside down, as tradition tells us, the church elected Linus as the second bishop of Rome to succeed him, and so it has happened for 2,000 years.

As the Vicar of Christ, the pope serves as the visible sign of the church’s unity and exercises a pastoral primacy in union with the college of bishops. Through his preaching, teaching, celebration of the sacraments and governance, the pope leads the universal church to an ever-deeper union with Christ and a more effective proclamation of the Gospel.

Through his charisma, dynamism and faith, Pope John Paul II put the papacy on the world stage, serving as a global evangelist, speaking fearlessly about human rights, the true reality of freedom, the primacy of moral conscience, the need to serve the poor and the beauty of faith.

While everyone does not agree with what the pope says, no one seems to ever question his duty and right to speak and lead. When the pope speaks, the world listens, as evidenced by the intense interest in Pope Francis’ varied comments.

One could reasonably argue that, if not for the papacy, the church would have split apart centuries ago into fractious groups of divided Christians. While the role of the local diocese is to be the church in this one particular place, culture and people, the role of the pope, as he exercises his primacy of leadership within the universal church, is to hold in a dynamic unity the beautiful diversity of all the local churches.

Thus, a healthy tension exists within the church, between the universal and the particular, between what is essential to the faith and what is a local cultural expression of it.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is different from the Catholic Church in Tanzania in cultural forms, traditions of spirituality and prayer, models of leadership et cetera, and yet they are one in the elements that constitute the unity of faith. If this relationship tips out of balance, things will either become overly centralized or fly apart in a thousand different directions.

Obviously, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, nourishes, supports and unifies his body, the church, using the papacy as a visible and human instrument, to strive ever more ardently for that gift of unity, for which he prayed so passionately the night before his crucifixion.

Last Wednesday, the pope asked for our prayers. We gladly offer them for a man, elected by the cardinals but ultimately appointed by the Holy Spirit, to lead, serve, govern, inspire, teach, sanctify, unify and love 1.3 billion Catholics and to reach beyond ecclesial boundaries to propose the love of Jesus to every person.

What a crushing task, but what a gift to us, this pope, this man of God, “this sinner, loved by Jesus Christ,” as Francis identifies himself. Viva il papa!