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’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.
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.