The Gift of Our Holy Father

A month or so ago I was down in Washington, D.C., for—what else?—another meeting.

At breakfast that morning, I was startled to see a story on the Church in that city’s newspaper; hardly shocked to see a story about the Church, mind you—since they publish those often—but to see a positive one with some good news!

That was revolutionary!

Seems as if a small but vibrant Episcopalian parish in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., St. Luke’s, has decided to accept the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI and reunite with Rome. 

The newspaper reported that the move took dare and courage, but that the decision had only one dissenting vote, and that the people were ecstatic.

What motivated this bold decision? the reporter asked. Noting that the parishioners were mostly people of color, from Africa and the Caribbean, the journalist inquired if “conservative” attitudes shaped the move.

For instance, she wondered if the parishioners were upset because the Anglican Church was now ordaining women priests and bishops?

The pastor calmly replied: he would wager that, indeed, his people were opposed to this, but that this issue was not the motive that prompted their reunion with Rome.

Well, then, the reporter went on, could it be they are angry that Anglicanism now approves of same-sex marriage, and of “abortion rights”?

Once again, replied the pastor, my people do indeed disagree with these decisions, but this opposition was not the reason for their decision to reunite with Rome.

Obviously curious, the journalist pushed on, asking, well, then, what did prompt the move?

Simple, the pastor responded: it is our desire to be reunited with the Successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI.

We lifelong Catholics take this for granted, I’m afraid. Or, even more worrisome, we sometimes consider unity with the Holy Father somewhat of a shackle. We’re a bit embarrassed at times, it seems, that an essential part of our Catholic creed is love for and loyalty to the Pope.

That’s rarely the case with people entering the Church. When I talk with our catechumens and candidates, for instance, they are eager for the bond with their earthly assurance of unity with Jesus and His apostolic Church: our Holy Father. This is part of the sparkle, the appeal, of Roman Catholicism.

Not for some lifelong Catholics. They may look at the Pope as the English look at Queen Elizabeth: the British are proud of her; they cheer her; she’s a great symbol of national unity—but she has no real authority or say in our lives.

Is that what we think about the Pope? That he’s just a symbol?

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic novelist, “If the papacy is only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Walker Percy, another renowned Catholic writer—and himself a convert to the Faith—observed: “It’s not that we Catholics are the only religion with a Pope. Every person, every religion, has a ‘pope.’ It’s just that, for a Catholic, the ‘pope’ is not me. For a Catholic, I am not the definitive voice in faith; someone else is, and we call him ‘our Holy Father.’”

So, as recently as last week, a local reporter criticized Pope Benedict for holding fast to the Church’s tradition on only ordaining men to the priesthood. It’s not that this journalist is against the Pope; he just thinks he should be, or that the dissident priest he extols in the article should be obeyed instead of the Pope.

This comes to mind a couple of weeks after Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the 60th anniversary of his own priestly ordination, on June 29, the Feast of St. Peter and Paul.

At the core of our Catholic faith, of course, is hardly the Pope, but Jesus. It’s just that we cherish the belief that Jesus charged Peter to shepherd His Church, giving him the keys to do so; and that Peter’s successor, the Pope, continues this mission.

We Catholics also realize that the popes are sinners. So, contrary to what the glowing reviewer of yet another “shocking history of the papacy” predicted last Sunday, Catholics familiar with their history will only yawn at this newest of the ceaseless accounts of papal sinfulness, realizing that the first one chosen by Jesus, Peter, was himself far from a gem, and that the foibles of the papacy only prove divine guidance over the Church, since God’s grace can work in, through, and often in spite of sinful pontiffs. We know as well that the charism of the Pope is hardly to change the teaching of the Church to accommodate our latest desires, but to challenge us to change our lives to conform to God’s will.

Sometimes it takes a story of an entire Episcopal parish reuniting with Rome to remind us of what a gift we have in the person and office of the Successor of St. Peter.

For, as one of those former Anglicans reported, the most dramatic moment for her came when, during the Eucharistic prayer, the pastor prayed for “Benedict, our Pope.”

As Walker Percy noted, “Take away Rome, and what we’re left with is Berkeley!”

Viva il Papa!