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My Love Affair with the Pope

What is it about an elderly man ascending to the Chair of Peter that causes me, an old Baptist girl, to swoon?  I swell with pride, my throat tightens, tears pour like rain and I am struck dumb with incredulity at this timeless spectacle.  What the heck has happened to me?

Before I converted, I’m not sure I was aware of the pope.  Surely I studied about a pope or two in world history, but I have no memory of them.  Of Catholics in general I was fairly ignorant, trusting to common misconceptions to form my opinions.  My grandfather subscribed to the “whore of Babylon” theory, but I mostly stuck with silly quips about Catholics avoiding birth control in order to increase their numbers, and going to confession so they could have a clear conscience about partying it up.  I was a deep thinker, see?

So when I met my husband and he wanted me to convert to Catholicism, I resisted.  After all, I knew the Bible. I knew what it took to be saved.  I felt no need for a change.  My husband, cradle Catholic that he was, didn’t know a thing about what he believed or why—only that I must become Catholic like him.  No other option was discussed.  I resented this, especially coming from the person who had seemingly absorbed nothing of his own faith beyond “this is the One True Church”.

I went through RCIA.  After several months of insipid reading and “feel-good” discussion, I was unmoved.  I had found no particularly convincing arguments for difficult Catholic doctrines, and a whole lot of well-intentioned but misguided spiritual mish-mash.  I declined to be confirmed.

Over the next year I prayed about this situation.  My husband, disappointed at my lack of conversion, regularly asked if I had now decided to become Catholic, and if not now, then when, and if not, then why?  (This is the same husband who proudly insists that he never pressured me to join the Church.)

During this time, we moved to a new town and at the invitation of a friend, I began going to adult formation classes in our new parish.  The man who taught these classes was a fantastic teacher who could rival any Baptist pastor for Bible-beating and fervent preaching—things I had missed while attending Catholic services.  I often went head-to-head with him over doctrinal points, but he always had answers that made a lot of sense.  In retrospect, I realize that I was doing little more than parroting the tired old arguments against Catholic teaching that have been around forever.  I’m sure he had heard it all before, but he answered me with patience and kindness and above all, he never compromised the truth.

One day I met with him in his office.  I don’t remember why.  I think I had a couple of small children along; why would I have brought children if I intended to have a serious theological discussion?  At any rate, we ended up talking about authority—the kind of authority the Church has, guided by the Holy Father and the Magisterium.  I have no idea what he said, though I believe he quoted some scripture along with it.  All I know is that suddenly, I was overcome.  My face flushed red-hot.  I began to cry.  Whatever he said about authority, I knew, deep inside, that he was right.  And I was wrong.  All the arguments I’d had suddenly meant nothing.  It was a profoundly awkward moment for him and an awkwardly profound moment for me.

From that time, my view of authority changed.  As I learned more, I could not help but love and appreciate the tremendous wisdom of God’s design for the Church.  Rather than seeing the Church’s authority—and its chief authority figure—as restrictive or controlling, I felt an immense comfort.  I could snuggle under the wing of my Holy Mother Church and my Holy Father, the Pope, just as a helpless baby bird might do.  I didn’t have to figure everything out; they had done all that for me.

This is not to say that I abdicated my reason or gave up trying to understand things for myself.  I didn’t.  In fact, I insisted on understanding each teaching that I came across, wrestling and reading until I felt satisfied with the answer.  The last bastion of my heart was Mary.  Her, I could not comprehend.  Finally, after a drawn out and disappointing struggle, it occurred to me that the God had faithfully answered all my other questions through the historic teachings of the Church.  They’d been right on everything else; could I not accept this one last thing as a matter of trust?  I decided that I could.

When I look at our Protestant brethren, I see many things that we would do well to emulate.  And yet I pity them, not only because they lack the fullness of truth, but because they are in many ways like what the United States might be without a President.  They lack the single, unifying, infallible guide that we have in the Holy Father, who, together with the Magisterium, gives us sure guidance in every difficulty. I am overcome with wonder at the wisdom which has steered our Church through everything from ancient heresies to modern reproductive technology.  Like any good Mother and Father, they set limits on us for our own good.  Sometimes, like children, we don’t understand.  But when we know our parents love us, we learn to trust that they always want what is best for us; they want to keep us from harm and see us safely to Heaven.

I defy you not to love this man!

I’m no papal scholar.  Other than Humanae Vitae, I probably haven’t read a single encyclical in full.  Studying papal writings takes brain power that I have difficulty summoning on a good day, much less when surrounded by the energy-sucking mutants I call children.  And yet I look at each of the popes of my lifetime with complete devotion and awe.  The first time I read a critical comment about Blessed John Paul II, I was shocked.  Could there be a Catholic on the planet that did not adore this man?  [Please do not answer; I know now that there are many.]  Maybe I’m naïve, or too unquestioning and sheep-like, but these popes—Blessed John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict, and now Pope Francis (yes, even Pope Paul IV, though he was before my time)—have my heart on a string.

…or this one!

I don’t idolize them.  I don’t divinize them.  But I love them with an inexplicable, total, and all-encompassing love.  Maybe I love what they represent: the visible head of Christ’s Church on Earth.  But I think it’s more than that.  I love their fantastic intellectual gifts.  I love their penetrating insights.  And, ultimately, I love their love.  They radiate, each in his unique way, the unmistakable, fruitful, all-consuming love which distinguishes the Holy Spirit indwelling.  They love us in word, and in deed.  They love us with firmness and gentleness.  They love us truly.  And I love them.  Other people can call them popes; as for me, I’m blessed to call each of them, affectionately, my Holy Father.

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That They May All Be One

Jesus prays we would be one before He is arrested. John 17:20-24

Jesus prayed that we would be one, with the same singularity of the Trinity as three persons in one.  If this was a prayer of Jesus, then it must be what God truly desires.  Yet, how can us sinful people who make up the Church on Earth be One in the way Jesus prayed?

St. Paul, Ephesians 5:32

This kind of unity cannot be achieved through man, it can only be achieved through the power of our Lord God.  Jesus said He has given us the glory the Father gave to Him so that we may be one, and it is indeed a great mystery.  However, St. Paul gives us much insight into the nature of the Church.

St. Paul, Ephesians 5:21-29

Jesus prayed that we would be brought to perfection as one, and St. Paul explains that Jesus sanctifies the Church through His body, baptism and the word of God.  God unifies and perfects us in the Sacraments of the Church.  We are baptized into the body of Christ, into His Church through water, and this baptism cleanses us of our sin so that we are made holy and without blemish.

Jesus says to the disciples in his first appearance to them after His resurrection, John 20:21-23

However, baptism does not prevent us from the stain of future sins.  We are to be presented to God as holy and without blemish, and thankfully, our benevolent God provided for that too.  We can be made perfect again through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as provided by Jesus via the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in the Church.  Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, came back to life and His first order of business was to provide for the application of the remission of sins through the Church He established, so that we could be perfected as one.

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Another great mystery in the Church is the Eucharist.  Not only did Christ give us His body for the atonement of our sins, He also gives Himself perpetually today.  Every time we partake of the Blessed Sacrament we are partaking of the same singular Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity that we did every time before, as has everyone who has partaken of the Holy Eucharist all the way back to the apostles.  The Eucharist is a timeless, miraculous Church unifier.

Hebrews 12:1-2

At the Holy Sacrifice of the mass heaven and earth are mystically united in time to Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.  If our senses fail to detect the miracle made present before us by transubstantiation, then they may also fail us in detecting how at mass each and every week we are united with all of the angels and saints worshiping Jesus by our side.  The Eucharist not only unites us among the Church Militant by participation in His singular body and blood, but it also unites us with the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant!  When we attend mass we are worshiping Jesus with all of our loved ones who have passed on, literally worshiping with the whole of the Body of Christ!  How is that for unity?

St. Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 3:14-16

If the unity found in the Liturgy of the Eucharist isn’t uniting enough, we can also explore the unity found in the Liturgy of the Word.  Every mass, every day, around the world Catholics are unified daily by the lectionary because you can walk into any ordinary Catholic mass and hear the exact same scripture readings (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel) as you would hear if you’d walked in to any other Catholic mass that day, even in another country.  If one attends mass daily for three years they will have heard the entire Bible!  Holy Mother Church makes sure all of her children have God’s Word made available to them as She understands the utmost importance of it for a believer’s journey.

1 Corinthians 1:17

St. Paul reminded Timothy to remain faithful to what he had been taught because, as St. Paul confesses to the Corinthians, what he teaches is from a source greater than his human self.  In the homily our priests combine Sacred Tradition, teachings not of their own but those handed down by the apostles and protected by the Holy Spirit, with Sacred Scripture for a powerful combination of God’s Word.

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:10

By combining Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition in every homily, the Church ensures that the faithful may all be able to agree in what is said.  This works directly to fulfill Jesus’s prayer that others might be brought to salvation by the testament of unity amongst believers, especially by the unity of their words.

Matthew 18:14-17

Being Catholic means to give up your “right” to be right, which is the super glue of Church unity.  In today’s society we’ve developed a sense that relativism is correct.  Everyone has a right to believe whatever it is they feel is the truth.  No one has to or even should submit to someone else’s truth.  Yet Jesus tells us that the Church He built has the final say in all matters among the faithful.  One of the biggest ways a brother can sin against you is to try to convince you of a heresy.  It is of the upmost importance that we remain united in the teachings of Christ, and so Jesus provided a definitive source of answers for us fallen souls (because He knew full well we would disagree if left to our own devices).

Ephesians 6:1

St. Paul echoes this divine paradigm in his letter to the Ephesians.  Ephesians 5 contains a graceful passage which weaves teachings about marriage into an explanation of Christ’s relationship to the Church.  This profound creative genius elevates Christ’s relationship with the Church to that of the Sacrament of Marriage.  Simultaneously St. Paul depicts the elevation of marriage to a Sacrament by comparing it to the Christ and the Church.  As a result, St. Paul leads us to an illustration of Christ and the Church as our Father and Mother when he immediately presses into “Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (don’t be fooled by the chapter markings, St. Paul’s original letter did not contain chapter breaks!).  Both the laity and the clergy (even the Pope!) are to be subordinate to the Church.  All Catholics are to put aside their man made understandings on truth (say on life issues, contraception, fertility issues, women’s ordination, anything prefaced by “It’s between me and God”) and submit to the wisdom of God’s Word that the Holy Spirit protects within Jesus’s bride, the Church (remember two become one flesh!).  This view of the Church brings a whole new meaning to Jesus’s words, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” (Lk 18:17) as well as  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (Matt 5:3)

This takes an amazing amount of faith.  It takes much faith to believe that the bread and wine become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist when it still looks like bread and wine.  It also takes an amazing amount of faith to believe that the Infallible Truth of God can be preserved amongst ordinary humans, when they are still ordinary sinful humans.  “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60) Well, so is accepting the actuality and Truth of the Trinity, believing that a man died for three days came back to life, and furthermore flew Himself up to Heaven forty days later.  Nothing in Christianity is easy to believe, that’s why it takes faith, a saving kind of faith.

(Yesterday’s Mass readings dovetail nicely with this topic!)

My Lord God, I pray not only for us the Church, but also for those who will believe in you through our word, so that we may all be one, as you, Father, are in Jesus and Jesus in you, that we also may be in You, that the world may believe that you sent Our Savior. And Jesus has given us the glory you gave Him, so that we may be one, as You and Your Son are one, He in us and you in Him, that we may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent the Son of Man, and that you loved the world even as you loved the Lamb of God, Your Son. Father, we are your gift to Jesus. I wish that where He is we also may be with Him, that we may see His glory that you gave Him, because you loved Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world.  Amen.