|Martin Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg in the year 1520.|
Oil Painting on Canvas by Karl Aspelin 1857-1922
Perhaps it's because I am accustomed to feeling religiously uncomfortable that I am willing to accept the uncomfortable feeling this latest pope gives us. The truth is, I haven't felt "comfortable" in a religious sense in at least 15 years. My religious discomfort began in the late 1990s, when my pastoral studies into Church history, and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, led this Evangelical Protestant Fundamentalist to discover that the early Church was a lot more "Catholic" than I was comfortable with. In rather short order, my whole religious world turned upside down. I'm not ashamed to admit that I nearly had a nervous breakdown over it. I was studying to become a pastor in an Evangelical church. I was offered a very nice and comfortable position in that church. There is no doubt in my mind that had I continued on that course I would be that church's pastor today. I would be making a fairly good salary. I would be doing what I love -- teaching -- and the whole thing would be oh so very comfortable. There are not many Protestants who know the history of Christianity. Only a small handful do, and most of them are training for the ministry. By that time, they are already vested into their denomination, and making a course correction is often difficult. Sometimes it's near impossible. So what these educated Protestants do is simply gloss over, or ignore, those parts of Church history that contradict what their denomination teaches, and that's how it's handled. I couldn't do that. I took the early Church Fathers seriously. I took ancient (not modern) Jewish tradition seriously. For this my vocation as a Protestant pastor was doomed before it ever got started. I was honest with myself and with history, which of course made me very uncomfortable.
My conversion to Catholicism was a slow and difficult one. My poor wife had difficulty understanding it and accepting it. She did what a good wife does. She let her husband lead the way. With such a strong anti-Catholic background, I couldn't bring myself to just outright join the Catholic Church. I still believed the Roman Catholic Church was the prophesied "Whore of Babylon" in the Book of Revelation 17. So instead, I decided to take the slow route. I believed the early Christians might be "Catholic" just not "Roman Catholic." (Funny, how the Protestant mind works, isn't it?) So I decided to explore the "Catholic" traditions of Christianity in what I considered to be a good, safe Protestant environment. I became an Anglican. There is no doubt in my mind that Anglicanism is what completed my journey into the Catholic Church. Without it, I believe my conversion would have been impossible. I simply cannot describe to you the level of animosity I held toward Rome. Only the most staunch Evangelical can comprehend this. Anglicanism is what made the Catholic Church possible for me. For that, I owe the Oxford Fathers a debt of gratitude, along with a certain Episcopal priest who knew just the right things to say at just the right time. (If he's reading this, he knows who he is.) I certainly would have been content to remain an Anglican (Episcopalian) indefinitely, and that would have been the most convenient thing to do, but I couldn't. Because you see, The Episcopal Church U.S.A., like many Anglican churches throughout the world, is undergoing a radical change from a relatively conservative expression of Christianity 40 years ago, to a much more radicalised and "progressive" expression today. They have been ordaining women to the ministry for a generation, and now they are becoming more accepting of homosexuality -- even to the point of celebrating it. You can imagine, this went over like a lead balloon with this former Evangelical Fundamentalist. I looked for more conservative expressions of Anglicanism, but at the time, only one could be found in our area and it was very small. My wife plainly stated she did not want to join a smaller church, and if we were going to change anything, we had to go bigger. In this, I saw her wisdom, because I understood what our Lord had told us about unity within the Body of Christ. Again, I was having that oh so familiar feeling of being uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with where I was within such a "progressive" denomination, and I was uncomfortable with where this meant we had to go next, but at that point it didn't matter any more. Sometimes in life, you just have to do the uncomfortable thing, because it's the right thing to do. So I joined the Catholic Church.
I found my conversion to Catholicism to be both warm and welcoming. I also found it to be the right thing to do for so many reasons. However, I would be lying if I told you I was starting to feel comfortable, because I wasn't. What led this Evangelical to turn from rabid anti-Catholicism to becoming a Roman Catholic was a love for the high-church liturgy I was introduced to in Anglicanism. There was something about this that conveyed a profound truth. If indeed God is present in the Eucharist, if indeed the Creator of the universe has come to us in what looks and tastes like ordinary bread and wine, then shouldn't there be some pomp and circumstance to his visitation? I thought to myself, if Jesus Christ were to bodily appear in the sky today, and slowly descend back to earth, how would we great him? Would we break out the electric guitars, start playing rock music, and jump around in bluejeans and t-shirts? Or might we do things with a little more seriousness and with royal fanfare instead? I mean, how does one greet a king? More than that, how does one greet the King of the universe!?! The problem I was having is that everything seemed a little "toned down" in the Catholic parishes in the area I live in. Catholic worship seemed rather "low key" and casual. In addition, sometimes liberties were taken, and innovations made, that didn't seem appropriate to me. As the depth of my understanding of the Eucharist increased, all of this casual worship was starting to feel a little -- uncomfortable. By this time I was starting to get discouraged. "Maybe I'm just too much of an uptight person" I thought. "What's wrong with me? Maybe I'll never be happy." I know that's what my wife thought. She told me this on more than one occasion, and frankly I don't blame her. Still I felt driven. So I started attending a Latin mass where I became acquainted with more uptight people. And there, I learnt something about myself.
I learnt that what was making me feel uncomfortable was not entirely the same thing that was making them feel uncomfortable. These people seemed perfectly at home and comfortable in their traditional Latin mass liturgy, and while I drew a certain amount of comfort from it too, I knew this was not me. I could feel just at home in a Novus Ordo English mass, if it were celebrated with the same dignity and reverence. For me, it wasn't really a "particular way" of worship I was looking for, but rather a "general reverence" that is suitable to welcoming the King of kings. The particular liturgical rite wasn't nearly as important to me as the way it was celebrated. In the end, I found that the best way to deal with this is to "kill two birds with one stone" so to speak. Liturgical expression is something that should be dealt with, but to do this properly, it must be a form of evangelism. Good liturgy always produces new converts, and I'm living proof of that. So that's why I signed on with Pope Benedict XVI's ordinariate plan for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. The high-church Anglican liturgy, combined with the uncomfortable feeling of what Protestantism had become, is what drew me into Roman Catholicism. Being uncomfortable isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes it can actually be a good thing, that is, assuming it leads one to do good things. Sometime in the very near future, we hope to begin celebrating a mass in our area, according to the Vatican approved liturgy of Divine Worship, that comes to us from the Anglican patrimony. Our hope and prayer is that this will both bring in new converts to the Catholic Church, and simultaneously re-evangelise old Catholics who have fallen away for various reasons. Will it work? That remains to be seen. God is in control of that.
I told you this story because I want to draw a comparison. The title of this article is "Of Popes and Protestants" because I am seeing some striking similarities between what this latest pope is doing, and what happened to me over the last 15 years. It seems that Pope Francis is making everybody feel a little uncomfortable, and I believe that is intentional on his part. This is because I believe he knows that feeling uncomfortable is not always a bad thing, but can sometimes be a good thing, assuming it leads people to do good things. I'm pretty sure that's what this pope is all about. What he is doing is not out of the ordinary really, because Pope Benedict XVI made some people feel uncomfortable too. I know for a fact that many people in the Catholic Church (even some priests and bishops) felt very uncomfortable with Summorum Pontificum, the official proclamation that made the celebration of the Latin mass more available throughout the worldwide Church. I know for a fact that many people in the Catholic Church (clergy and laity) felt very uncomfortable with Anglicanorum Coetibus, the apostolic constitution that provided for the creation of personal ordinariates for former Anglicans within the Catholic Church. In fact, some people felt extremely uncomfortable with these things, and voiced their discomfort very loudly. These actions, taken by the previous pope, led many to do good things. Simultaneously however, some people sadly missed the point. Instead they withdrew, said bad things about the old Latin mass and the new Anglican ordinariates. Some people considered those who loved the old Latin mass to be reprobates -- calcitrant throwbacks who couldn't handle the reforms of Vatican II. They said so in Internet articles, magazines and newspapers. Some even said it from behind the pulpit. Some people considered Anglicans, who wished to join the Catholic Church through the ordinariates, to be mutants -- half-breeds who were no longer Anglican but then not fully Catholic either. This again was articulated in Internet articles, magazines, newspapers, and even from behind the pulpit (believe it or not). In these actions we see people who felt uncomfortable with the pope's changes, and rather than using that discomfort to push them forward into doing good things, they instead withdrew and attacked others, in some kind of vain attempt to recover that previous comfort they had since lost. Traditional and conservative Catholics loved Pope Benedict XVI, because many of the things he did agreed with their ideology. Moderate and progressive Catholics were not so please with him, because what he did made them feel uncomfortable.
Now it's the other way around. Pope Francis has thus far become the little darling of moderate to progressive Catholics, and this time it's the conservative to traditional Catholics who are feeling uncomfortable. It remains to be seen how long this current situation will last, as I am convinced that Pope Francis is a lot more "conservative" and "traditional" than he letting on right now, but only time will disclose that. Still, what he is doing is making a lot of people feel very uncomfortable. That can be a good thing, if it pokes and prods people to do good things. If however, people reject that feeling of discomfort, and instead retreat in a vain attempt to recover their comfort zone, doing whatever it takes to get there, even attacking other people in the process, then we have a problem. Over the last eight years I have watched moderate to progressive Catholics attack the reforms of Pope Benedict XVI, and sometimes even the man himself, simply because he made them feel uncomfortable. I have been on the receiving end of a lot of immature and unnecessary nastiness over both Summorum Pontificum and Anglicanorum Coetibus. The things that were said to me, and about me (even by priests!), would have driven a lot of people out of the Catholic Church. Fortunately for me, I've grown a rather thick hide over the last two decades. My ego was obliterated in 1998 when I learnt that everything I believed about Christianity was wrong, and that it wasn't really the world that was upside down, rather it was me. This epiphany led to my conversion to the Catholic Church, and in the process I discovered who my friends really were. The things that were said to me by Protestant family members, who could not understand my decision, will not be repeated here. The friendships that were lost are not something I care to discuss because I have moved on. If you're not a convert, you won't understand. The only advice I can give you when dealing with converts is this. Treat them like you would treat somebody at a funeral who just lost his whole family in a tragic car wreck, because the emotions are similar. I learnt at the age of 30 how to be uncomfortable and embrace it. When those priests, and cradle Catholics, said those things to me (and about me) I was not discouraged. After what I had been through just to enter the Catholic Church, there was little they could say or do to drive me away. For this I am lucky. No, I mean fortunate. No, I mean blessed! Because this new pope is making me feel uncomfortable again, and I know, based on previous experience, that this is a very good thing!
Others may not be so blessed to have this understanding. Instead, what I am seeing now is a whole lot of conservative to traditional Catholics, behaving a lot like their moderate to progressive counterparts did under Benedict's papacy. They are retreating. They are building up walls. They are lashing out at the pope and those who defend him. They are desperately trying to recover their comfort zone, but it is fading away quickly. They don't know what to do, and some of them are getting downright nasty about it. For the first time, in a long time, these conservative to traditionalist Catholics are getting a taste of what the moderate to progressive Catholics have been feeling for the last eight years. Francis has done nothing to revoke Summorum Pontificum, and in fact, he has told some bishops to stop complaining about it. Francis has done nothing to hinder the work of Anglicanorum Coetibus, and in fact, he has even strengthened it. So what is so upsetting then? Well, I think it's just his frank personality, and the fact that what he often says is true. Granted, he doesn't always say it perfectly, because nobody is perfect, not even the pope. What he says however, is true, and the truth hurts, doesn't it. The truth often makes us feel uncomfortable, and it's supposed to -- because it's the truth! We are human beings, a fallen race, and we don't like hearing the truth. By nature we want to hear lies and half-truths, because that is what makes us feel more comfortable.
In recent days the pope has said some things about capitalism that has made many capitalists feel very uncomfortable. Some of them have lashed out at him, even some Catholics, even some Catholic priests! Then he clarified himself, and rather than taking the pope's words with docility, they accused him of back peddling. So is what he said about capitalism really all that bad? Is it untrue? No, it is the truth, and that is what is making people feel so uncomfortable. I say deal with it. Smell it. Because it's the truth and you need it. If it bothers you -- good! Now go out and do something good.
Over the last several months the pope has characterised his papacy with a rather meek and humble kind of presentation. This has made many traditionalists feel very uncomfortable. Some have lashed out at him, saying that he is pushing the Church back toward the radical innovations popular in the 1970s through 90s, which his predecessor, Benedict XVI, condemned as misguided. This in spite of the fact that he has done nothing to call for a return to such a hermeneutic of rupture, but has rather said the exact opposite, favouring more continuity with the past, and lamenting the general loss of solemnity and sacred mystery in the Roman Rite. His personal style is irrelevant. How he chooses to celebrate his own liturgy is his own choice. He has done nothing to force modernist liturgy on anyone, and yet he makes people feel uncomfortable. Because he simply told a single religious order to abide by its charter, he is now derided as a "modernist" who wants to return the Church to the liturgical rupture of 40 years ago. For heavens sake people; you still have the Latin mass. You still have plenty of young priests who want to celebrate the Novus Ordo mass reverently as Benedict envisioned. Does the pope make you feel uncomfortable? Good! Now go and do something good.
The pope is in the process of reorganising the curia, and again, he can't even make a single decision without causing people to think we are going back to a hermeneutic of rupture. Come on people! It's not like he just appointed Hans Küng the new Vatican Secretary of State! Did the curia not need reform? Is the Vatican not in need of a total makeover? Did we not just learn about money laundering and a horrid homosexual prostitution ring within the Vatican, that was in part, the likely product of a system that is broken and needs significant repair? The pope has barely begun to fix things, and yet people are already complaining. Do his reforms make you feel uncomfortable? Good! And let's hope they make those who caused the scandals feel even more uncomfortable. No go and do something good.
The truth is, I don't know what will become of this papacy. I'm just leaving it in God's hands. After all is said and done, there is nothing this pope can do to change my Catholic Christian faith, other than make it stronger, one way or another. That's how I'm approaching this uncomfortable feeling he's giving me. I'm embracing it, because in the end, that's all I really can do. The only other option is to retreat and become bitter, desperately seeking to reclaim a comfort zone that I never really had to begin with, and is fading away for everyone else. In truth, many Catholics today, both on the traditional and modern side, are behaving a lot like Protestants, depending upon who the pope is. I choose not to go that route because you see, that's not the religion I signed up for. That is the religion I left behind.
I also didn't sign up for a religion that constantly makes me worry. Every day I'm hearing the same thing. "Pray, pray for the pope, pray for the Church!" Yes, pray! Pray regularly and pray hard. I agree. Unfortunately, many of the people who are saying this are saying it in a spirit of desperation, because they don't like what the pope is doing, and he's making them feel uncomfortable. Their admonition to "pray" is really just a veiled protest. Prayer works. Do it. That however shouldn't stop us from using our feeling of discomfort to go out and also do something else that is good too.
According to the gospels, Jesus Christ spent a great deal of time talking about economics. I'm sure the things he said made a lot of people in his day feel very uncomfortable. Those same words make people feel uncomfortable today. Jesus Christ was also a bit unorthodox when it came to his observance of some Jewish traditions. This too made some people uncomfortable. Jesus Christ did more than reform the leadership of Israel. He replaced it! This, after all is said and done, is the reason why those in power had him killed. It made them feel very, very uncomfortable. Will we be like the scribes and Pharisees, who lashed out in the most wicked ways imaginable, to reclaim a fleeting sense of comfort that ultimately destroyed them in the end? Or will we be like the apostles who embraced that feeling of discomfort, and used it to do something good, turned themselves right side up, and transformed the history of planet earth? The choice is up to each and every one of us -- individually.
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