I remember watching in April 2005 the funeral of Blessed John Paul II, weeping tears of gratitude for the man whose epic witness had helped lead me to the panoramic beauty and integrity of the Catholic faith. I was also saddened that his death came before my journey to the Catholic faith was complete; I had wanted him to be MY Pope, you know?
And yet, I have come to deeply love the witness and ministry of Pope Benedict XVI, and his continuing invitation for us to behold with him the face of Christ. He has been no "transitional Pope," his ministry--both before his papacy and during--has been a tremendous blessing with a legacy all its own. Even if he had never become Pope, he would be remembered as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. Many blessings to you, Holy Father--we love you and are praying for you.
While I appreciate the media attention being paid to the Holy Father's announcement, days like today are glaring reminders of how most non-Catholics don't really "get" the Pope. They interpret the papacy--the world's oldest institution--through a standard sociopolitical grid when, the truth is, Catholicism can only be fully understood from the inside.
During my life as a non-Catholic, I didn't understand the fervor of crowds surrounding the Pope. I’d shake my head at media footage of the Pope-mobile moving through a sea of people, with some in the crowd weeping and others holding their babies up for a blessing, while the Pope waved or made the sign of the cross. “So strange,” I’d think to myself; “It’s as if they worship him.”
Now, from the inside, I see things quite differently, discovering that what the non-Catholic perceives as hero-worship, the Catholic experiences as deep gratitude and affection, joined with a profound awareness of Christ’s unifying and sacramental presence through the successor of St. Peter. It's worth noting that though the pontiff wields significant authority in the Church, the word "Pope" literally means "father,'' expressing more a familial affection than a hierarchical office.
It’s similar to the devotion Catholics feel for the saints, and most intensely the Blessed Mother. I recall a conversation with a concerned Protestant friend, who not long after my becoming Catholic expressed the fear that my newfound love of Mary would compete with my love for Jesus. I said, “Think about it this way. You love your husband with all your heart, don’t you? Does your love for him compete with your love for Christ, or do you love Christ even more because he has given you your husband?”
In a similar way, the Pope is God’s gift to us, a sign of unity in a world full of divided Christians and 30,000+ Protestant denominations. How far we have strayed from manifesting Christ's Church as being one flock with one shepherd (John 10:16).
Furthermore, God has not just given us the papacy, but the entire hierarchy of bishops. The word hierarchy literally means “sacred order,” and refers to God’s providential plan for leading and governing the Church. I’m amazed to hear people say, “Oh, I love the Catholic Church, I just don’t like the hierarchy.” It’s like saying, “I love my wife—everything except her head.”
In St. Paul’s words, the Church is the body of Christ, and “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended” (1 Cor. 12:18). In this image, the hierarchy is the Church’s head, the sacramental sign of Christ’s leadership. And though the hierarchy is comprised of imperfect men, we trust the Holy Spirit to faithfully guide and protect Christ’s Church through their leadership.
For American Catholics, we sometimes chafe at the idea of authority. We are a nation built on the ideas of revolution and independence, and some ask, “Aren’t we free to think for ourselves, to obey the primacy of our consciences, especially on some of the more difficult doctrines our Church teaches?” In my experience, the usual stumbling block for modern Catholics centers on the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and family life.
Yet consider these words from Pope Benedict’s homily at Yankee Stadium during his visit to the U. S. a few years ago: “Authority… obedience. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a ‘stumbling stone’ for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom. Yet…the Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love.”
Such surrender doesn’t mean our leaders aren’t accountable, of course, for there are occasions to confront those who fail to live out the very teachings they proclaim. But such prophetic critiques must always arise from a spirit of love and respect for God’s sacred order of leadership.
As parents, we have occasions to remind our children that if they don’t learn to live under authority, their entire lives will be miserable. It’s a reminder we need as well, because it is in resisting God’s authority that the demands of love become most burdensome. But the beautiful irony is that when we accept with grace Christ’s authority, even in teachings we may not understand, we find, in the words of Jesus, that his yoke is easy and his burden light (Mt. 11:29).
We thank God for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI, and we pray that his remaining years are blessed with rest, strength, and spiritual consolations. And we pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to be within those entrusted with electing a new Pope. We are stunned by this development, yes, but not afraid. As Jesus promised, "On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."