It’s hard to imagine that only a year ago I was preparing to announce I would be joining the Catholic Church just as Pope Benedict XVI was preparing to retire. It seems like so much has happened since then. In my life I have lived through only three pontificates: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Each of these men has played a crucial role in my journey to the Catholic Church.
John Paul II
When I was growing up, John Paul II was a man that I was aware of, although he wasn’t a large part of my life. As a confessional Lutheran I was taught that the Pope of Rome was an Anti-Christ, but I always had trouble squaring that with a man who seemed to be filled with such courage, and love. I remember learning of John Paul II’s near assassination and subsequent forgiveness of his assailant and I was humbled. In many ways the John Paul II was the voice that helped guide me to look beyond the fears and caricatures I had developed about the Catholic Church and introduced me to the real Church. It was not a church of saint worship, superstition, and cold hierarchy. It was a Church made up of people who loved Jesus and gave up their lives for him in radical vocations of love. John Paul II demonstrated this in his life and became an ambassador to my heart. Near the end of his pontificate I picked up Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It inspired me in a way where I felt I was meeting the Catholic Church theologically for the first time. I had always known Catholics, but I hadn’t really known the Church. John Paul II called out “come and see!”
Few were surprised at the election of Benedict XVI, but I have to admit I never would have guessed the impact this man would have on my life. In the years of Benedict’s pontificate I began to seriously explore the theology of the Catholic Church, and Benedict’s hand was all over much of the Catholic Teachings. He naturally became a conversation partner to me…. albeit the conversation was all one way. I read a LOT of Benedict. His Introduction to Christianity was a huge inspiration to me in my journey, and his Jesus of Nazareth books stirred my heart. I found his encyclicals both rich and challenging. Benedict taught me the Catholic Faith. He often made me fall more deeply in love with the Church, but I will admit he sometimes got under my skin and made me squirm. He taught with love, but he never sugar coated Church teaching, or let me off the hook. By the time I got around to reading through the Catechism of the Catholic Church I could see Benedict’s finger prints all over it and when I was finished I was so impressed by the truth within the pages that I knew the writing was on the wall and I was well on my way to becoming Catholic. Benedict taught me about the Catholic Church, and I am so much richer for it.
When the news of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel reached me on March 13, 2013 I rushed to my computer to see who the new Holy Father would be. This time around there was little certainty about who would be elected. When Bergoglio was announced my heart skipped a beat. This Cardinal was a man who’s heart for the poor and the lost had touched me in my years of seeking. I had heard of his simplicity, and had been inspired by his creativity. What I didn’t know was how powerful his pastoral heart could be. Francis is truly a Sheppard in the Church, leading people into the fold and I am honored to be one of the first fruits of his pontificate. In the mere days between his election and my reception into the Church Francis began to redefine how I imagined a pope might look. He seemed to live each moment as an opportunity to honor the image of God in his neighbor, and offer himself as a cruciform of love. This was a man who I could follow. As he took on the mantel of the See of Peter I followed him into the arms of the Church.
A Church Blessed with Diversity
The apostle Paul once wrote that the community of believers makes up a body and that each member plays a part. Some of us are more honored then others, but each part is important. The same spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in each of us, from the newly baptized child to the Pope in Rome we are all equally adopted into the body of Christ. This central teaching is heart of what it means to be the Church. It is why we have the sacrament of Confirmation, for it is in conformation that our individuality is sealed by the spirit and commissioned to minister as an individual in the corporate life of the Church. Our first vocation is to life, and to use the life we have been given to honor God and serve our neighbor with the gifts and talents we have been blessed with. As I reflect back on the past year, I am overwhelmed by the ways that God used the individual gifting of our last three Pope’s to lead me to where I am today. God was able to use three very different men to bless me in very different ways all while serving from the same office and drawing me into the same Church.
Might we all live our vocations true to who God has made us to be, and honor how God is working in others. Each voice joined in baptism is commissioned by the spirit to add the their tenor and tone to the song of God.