The papacy and the call to Christian unity


Jesus says in Matthew 16:13-20, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter is being given the authority to govern the Church. Catholics understand this to be about the papacy, but my Protestant friends often point out that the reason Peter is given this authority is because of his faith, because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, not because of anything particularly wonderful about Peter himself. Faith, they say, is what should govern the Church, not some man sitting in a building in Rome, claiming to be Peter’s  successor. Faith in Jesus Christ, built only upon the Word of God in Scripture, should be sufficient. Yet there is another way of looking at the papacy that avoids this unhelpful division. What the papacy gives to us is not merely a means of governing the faithful, but a focal point for expressing our love and gratitude.

The pope does, of course, carry out a very important governing function. He’s the pastor of pastors, the bishop of bishops, and we need that kind of accountability. The buck has to stop somewhere. Otherwise, if every person is his or her own authority, we end up with chaos. Even if we say that the individual must be directed by the clear teaching of Scripture – how do we adjudicate disputes when my idea of “clear teaching” conflicts with yours?

Contrary to popular belief, the pope does not have unlimited power. He cannot just say something and then it becomes so. He exercises his authority through established means that make clear the difference between when he’s speaking with the full teaching authority of his office, backed up by centuries of precedent, and when he’s only offering an opinion or sharing an idea. And yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, he’s able to speak a word that settles an argument. He’s a living authority, capable of making sure that the Church never strays from her true teaching.

All of that is often where discussion of the papacy gets stuck, but the role of the pope is much more than that. He’s the embodiment of the Church.

Over the course of two thousand years, most Catholics haven’t been reading papal encyclicals. In fact, for most of history, in most of the world, about the only thing that the average Catholic knew about the pope was his name. But knowing the Holy Father’s name was a big deal, because it meant that you could pray for him. Popes are just human beings. Like Peter himself, they have all had their foibles. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been downright scoundrels who kept mistresses, had their enemies murdered, etc. But the pope is always a living, breathing man, which is what allows him to stand as the embodiment of the Church in any given age. Just as every priest is an icon of Christ, the pope is an icon of the Church.

I was living in Philadelphia in 2015 when Pope Francis made his famous visit to America, celebrating Mass in front of the steps of the Philly Art Museum. I was with the throngs of people who made their way through the security checkpoints. They say there were over a million people. I’ve never been in a crowd that large before. Yet there was so much joy, even though we were packed in like sardines. Some of the Dominican sisters from Nashville were leading people in singing “Ave Maria,” “God bless America,” and whatever else happened to pop into their heads. When I finally saw the Holy Father, from a great distance but still unmistakable in his white cassock, I felt a great swell of love in my heart. It was love for him, but it wasn’t really about him. It was love for Jesus, love for the Church, love for the grace and blessing that God pours out for us in the Sacraments, and most of all just immense gratitude. Here before me was all of that, in a living man who I could see and hear, who prays for me even as I pray for him. And I knew in my bones that this is what it means to be Catholic.

I love the Bible, but I cannot be grateful to it, nor can I expect it to love me back. I love the sacred tradition of the Church as well, but the great genius of the Catholic Church is that she is alive, organic, real. The pope is not a concept. He stands in Peter’s place as an actual living out of the apostolic calling that Our Lord gave to Peter when he was first handed those keys.

It isn’t about choosing between being governed by faith or by a man. It’s about recognizing that as human beings, we need more than just abstractions. We need flesh and blood. We need solid symbols that point us towards the unity and healing that we can only know in Jesus Christ.

Note on the text: This was originally written to be a homily for Sunday, August 23, 2020, however I have been in quarantine since Wednesday because of a possible Covid exposure. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this brief reflection.

 

Why I am becoming Catholic

This August, I will be entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is the culmination of many years of God working on my heart and at least two years of intense prayer and discernment.

I confess that this is how it feels for me right now: Beautiful but scary, a giant leap into the unknown, and in many ways very sad. I have spent my entire adult life in The Episcopal Church. It is in The Episcopal Church that I first came to believe in Jesus. The Episcopal Church is where I married my bride and baptized my children. I learned much of what I know about the Catholic faith from wonderful Anglo-Catholic friends and mentors, not to mention from the lives of great Anglican saints. Heck, I spent five years blogging about how totally awesome Anglicanism is. It is not easy for me to leave all that behind, especially when I know that there will be many people who will be disappointed by what I am doing.

About a year ago, I spoke with a friend and fellow Episcopal priest about the fact that I was considering becoming Catholic. In response, he asked me, “What’s the fatal flaw in Anglicanism then?” I was surprised by the question because that is not what this is about for me. I am not becoming Catholic because I want to reject Anglicanism. This is not about escaping the turbulence of life in the modern Episcopal Church or about some piece of doctrine or practice that got stuck in my craw. For me, this is about only one thing: Following the Lord Jesus Christ to where it is He is leading me.

When I first heard God calling me to the Catholic Church, it was during a period of fervent prayer. I was aware that there was something spiritually lacking in my life, but I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, God revealed to my heart that I needed to be Catholic. And I objected rather strenuously, “But I’m already Catholic!” The Lord did not argue with me. He did not lay out a five or ten point plan to try to convince me of the error of my ways. He just quietly, insistently, repeated Himself. The more I struggled against this calling, the more calmly and consistently the Lord repeated it.

In the months that followed, I began to explore the Catholic Church in new ways. I already knew the work of many Catholic theologians, of course, but now I broadened my search to try to understand what it means not just to think Catholic thoughts but to live a Catholic life. Many of you are aware that I was baptized Catholic and spent a good portion of my childhood in the Catholic Church, but it was under a somewhat strange set of circumstances, in a place that did not stress Catholic identity, and so I never really understood what being Catholic really meant. It was only after I became an Episcopalian that I discovered things like sacramental theology, liturgy, Catholic spirituality, and the lives of the saints. I figured that these things were the common heritage of all Christians (as indeed they are, at least in a sense). But now, as I looked at the Church again as if for the first time, I realized what I had missed before. My wife and I watched Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which shows in a lovely way not only the depth and history of Catholicism, but also the rich cultural landscape of how the faith is practiced all over the world. The breadth of the Catholic Church–from Africa to Calcutta, from medieval European cathedrals to the beautiful stone chapels of the new world, from the priest at the altar to the beggar at the mission door–is simply breathtaking. One night, after watching one of those videos, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life in a pond and only just now realized that there is an ocean.”

It is hard to explain, but there is a difference between reading St. Thomas Aquinas and being in communion with St. Thomas Aquinas. There is a difference between knowing that a common Baptism unites us as brothers and sisters in Christ and actually seeing the footprint of that in history. There is a difference between loving the tradition of the Church, even trying very hard to apply that tradition to new circumstances, and recognizing my place as just one sailor on a sea of tradition that I cannot control but that will always carry me home.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Naturally, there were doctrinal and practical issues that I needed to work out before I could enter into the Church, though not as many of the former as I might have suspected. Perhaps some time in the future I will talk more about these. Or perhaps not. For the moment, all I can do is approach the cross with wonder and wait upon the word of the Lord.

One thing that struck me pretty heavily in the last two years of discernment is how much more ecumenical my thinking has become. As I have come to accept God’s calling for me to come into the full communion of the Catholic Church, I have become far less defensive of my own theological turf. As an Anglican, I have always felt that I needed to justify Anglicanism’s continued existence, which sometimes led me to feel the need to bash others. But as I prepare to become a Catholic, I don’t feel that same need. The Catholic Church does just fine without me. She doesn’t need me to make the case for why she should exist. I can relax and embrace the fact that Baptists and Methodists and others are my brothers and sisters through Baptism and the cross. It is not my job to figure out the mechanics of unity amongst all Christians. It is, rather, my job to be faithful to the teaching of the Church and to love my neighbor as myself.

There are many challenges that face my family in the months to come. It will be difficult and heartbreaking to lay down my priesthood and to leave behind my beloved parish where I have spent almost a decade as Rector. But it is not really my priesthood. It never really was. All priesthood belongs ultimately to the one true priest, Jesus Christ Himself, who this day is inviting me and my family into the richness of His sacrifice and the depths of His heart. May each and every one of us come to know His saving embrace.