To the world, it's unsettling to imagine a man with global influence and practical power, moving to a small room, in a house of prayer, where he'll offer Mass and probably practice the piano. But Benedict XVI has never been interested in power or influence. He has been interested in friendship with Jesus Christ — his own, and mine, and yours.---Denver Archbishop Aquila
I woke up yesterday to the surprising news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and, consequently, to a Facebook feed replete with commentary, speculation, and even some vitriol (thank you Anne Rice fan page). No one was really expecting this, that much is clear.
This is the first time a pope has resigned since 1415.
I honestly wasn't planning on writing about it--what could I possibly say that others hadn't already said within hours of the bombshell announcement? That is, until someone asked me what I thought, and I considered how the pope used to be a pretty mysterious figure to me back when I was a Protestant. I didn't get it, and didn't know any Catholics who could explain it. And it's funny because, well, now I'm Catholic, so I figure maybe I should take this opportunity to share my journey of coming to accept the doctrine of the papacy, now that the whole world is talking about the papacy.
The chair of St. Peter is a difficult hurdle for Protestants for a number of reasons, but I think it all comes down to the idea that Catholicism is Sacramental. It is earthy. Physical things that we can see, hear, smell, and touch also hold supernatural and eternal significance.
And there really isn't a whole lot of that in Protestantism: baptism and communion are, in many denominations, regarded as merely symbolic. Marriage is something that can be dissolved. The Bible's commands about confessing sins are distilled down to occasionally saying "sorry" to God, while not holding any real significance because they were already paid for in full. Ordained pastors, ministers and reverends may preach the Bible from the pulpit, but they cannot trace their lineage back to Saint Peter.
So the very thought that God uses the stuff of earth--like bread and wine and water and people--to carry out the supernatural was once something foreign to me. The very thought that the Holy Spirit actively protects Christ's Church from error in passing on the deposit of faith received from the apostles was disconcerting. And yet as a Protestant I certainly accepted the Bible itself as being inerrant, I'd just never connected the dots and considered why exactly that might not extend to the institution which gave us the Bible.
As time passed by and I continued reading and processing through this other way of looking at faith, as I cautiously allowed myself to stand back and think what if, as I weighed the evidence and considered the possibilities, the burden of proof began to shift. Either the Catholics were, gasp, right, or the early Church fathers and subsequent popes and doctors of the Church were the most brilliant and cunning of all men. Because you know what? Roman Catholicism makes sense. From every angle: historically, Biblically and philosophically, it fits together. No mental gymnastics required to accept Jesus' crowd-scattering words in John 6, no crazy disconnect between the Old Testament priesthood and Jesus' fulfillment of the sacrifice, and no need to pretend John 20:21-23 isn't there.
And from a purely experiential perspective--heaven forbid my personal experience ever become any sort of litmus test for truth, but I will still acknowledge it as a perspective--the Catholic Church truly is the fullness of the faith. Christ's Church as He established it. No coincidence that as civilizations and societies and assorted denominations crumble, the Catholic Church stands. Her teachings don't change. And so what a gift it has been for me personally to receive the Sacraments, to receive Jesus Himself in the Holy Eucharist at Mass, to be absolved of my sins in the Sacrament of Confession, to see the beauty of chastity reflected in both my marriage and in the lives of the many consecrated religious that I know.
Simply, I've fallen in love with the Church.
Years before becoming Catholic, I sat glued to St. Peter's Square on the television screen, waiting for the smoke that would indicate a new pope had been chosen. I was completely transfixed. See while I'd never taken the time to really look into it all, I'd long been interested in the subject of Church History, especially in regards to the Reformation, and why there were so many Protestant sects today, and how the Catholics could hold so many views that "weren't in the Bible."
And, the pope.
I really wondered about the pope. How could someone so clearly arrogant, claiming to speak for God Himself, be heralded as holy or as someone who loved Jesus? How could a man claim to love the God I loved and keep people in bondage to a bunch of man-made rules and superstitious devotions? I just didn't get it.
So I watched. I watched as Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.
Without the slightest thought that one day I would look to him as the Holy Father of a Church to which I belonged.
How wrong I was about this man, and about the papacy in general. Jesus wanted His Church to have a shepherd. He left His Church in the hands of the apostles. He built His Church upon Saint Peter, who would be the leader of Jesus' Church on earth. This leader was never to be confused for God or our Savior Jesus Christ, but instead to represent Him and point us towards Him. To protect us from false teachers and from bad doctrine. Not by his own magic powers, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.
No pope has ever been sinless. I used to think that's what Catholics believed and it made little sense to me, for obvious reasons. But it turns out that the Catholic Church has never even remotely suggested this--instead, it was just my own uninformed and mistaken understanding of papal infallibility.
Far from meaning that the pope is all-knowing or all-perfect, infallibility means that:
when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable (Vatican I).
Eventually I came to understand. Eventually I came to accept the doctrines about the papacy as true. Eventually I became Catholic.
And I am, like many, so very sorry to hear of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. If you've read any of his writings, then you know he is profoundly brilliant with an incredible heart for Jesus. I've long appreciated his unwillingness to compromise and his courageous standing for truth, which he somehow manages to do with charity, grace and clarity. I believe he truly has the Church's best interests at heart.
I also believe the media, from FOX News to MSNBC, will continue to speculate and demonize and call his legacy a failure, all in the premature and confused way they report on everything else.
I believe millions will cast aspersions on this holy man by saying he couldn't quell scandal or harmonize the progressives and the conservatives. As if that is in his control, or job description. These people haven't a clue about what the Catholic Church is or about who the pope is. Like me all those years ago, watching the live news feed from Vatican City.
Thankfully though I've learned that the papacy is not about power or prestige. It's a humble and often despised position, in spite of its immense importance and significance. And Pope Benedict XVI's plan to live out the rest of his days in a monastery is further evidence that this is indeed a remarkable pope. This is indeed a virtuous man who loves his Lord above all else, and who is intent on giving up his life for his friends. Us. The Church. His future will look insignificant to the world who already can't wrap their mind around a man relinquishing the papacy, but then again, that is one of God's most precious and hidden truths, isn't it? Nothing done in service to Jesus is small. Prayer, devotion, the little things, the unseen, all of it is of great and eternal value. We may never know the graces and beauty that have come to us through the prayers of the faithful.
And I for one have been honored to have been served by Pope Benedict XVI, and I will be honored to have him praying for me in the years to come. May God bless and keep this dear soul.
The Church will of course continue on, teaching the truth and shepherding souls to heaven. What a beautiful gift we've been given.