Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church. This morning, like many of the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, the news of our Pope’s resignation came as a surprise to me. This is the first time in almost 600 years that a Pope has resigned the papacy. Here is a portion of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
I have to say, I’m very impressed. It is supremely rare to find a man freely willing to relinquish such a powerful position. Above all other considerations, I see a beautiful, exquisite humility in the Pope’s decision. I have to say, it is the kind of humility I rarely saw in all my years as a Protestant.
Growing up fundamentalist, we passionately decried the papacy of Rome. We said it was unbiblical for one man to have all that power and authority. We eschewed centralized power. At least, we said we did. The reality was that my childhood church was centered around one, charismatic personality whose authority went unquestioned. My grandfather claimed he was “just a brother among brothers” but the truth was that he actually had MORE power than the Catholic Pope because everyone deferred to him. When my grandfather fell, the entire church fell apart, too.
I saw the same Mini-Pope dynamic at work in many other Protestant churches, especially the non-denominational ones. The non-denoms were often organized around one powerful preacher. We attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa for four years before becoming increasingly concerned about how “Chuck Smith’s church” operated. What would happen, we wondered, when Chuck Smith was no longer running “Chuck Smith’s church”?
When we attended a more highly-organized Presbyterian church that reported to hierarchies of church boards and voting “Sessions,” we saw the opposite effect: a congregation left largely helpless after its denomination decided to change the sexual requirements for clergy. We were pretty stunned to discover that a denominational board could simply change standards of sexual behavior by a vote. Were issues of sexuality subject to nothing higher than a “democratic” voting process; aka, the changing opinions of board members? Was there no standardized teaching to which we all adhered?
One of the things I admired about the Catholic Church was its slow approach to change. It’s no coincidence that the structural hierarchy of the Church helps maintain teaching and Tradition. In other words, individual priests and parishes don’t individually decide which beliefs to keep and which to abandon. I also noticed that even if many Catholics didn’t seem to “follow all the rules,” at least there WERE rules and they weren’t being tampered with every few years.
One of the reasons I came to Catholicism was because so many Protestant churches had either discarded foundational Christian beliefs (many times in order to stay “relevant” and “seeker friendly) or had a pastoral power structure that was simply unsustainable.
I found a silent witness of peace and humility in the Catholic Church. I found this despite all the scandals, human sinfulness, screw-ups and messy history of the Church.
I came to Catholicism for many reasons and one of them was the unbroken, papal succession directly tracing itself back to the Apostle Peter. Somebody is leading this Church, I thought, and if it were just a mere man, this whole Catholic thing would have fallen apart centuries ago.
I realized I could believe the Holy Spirit was leading the Catholic Church.
Indeed, Pope Benedict understands the papacy isn’t about him. In his resignation announcement this morning, he called the Lord Jesus Christ “Our Supreme Pastor.”
Thank you, Pope Benedict, for your beautiful example of humility. This former fundamentalist is deeply grateful.