Father Mike’s November reflection

As anyone who has ever had responsibility for organising something can tell you, you can’t please everyone all of the time. In fact, there are days when it feels like pleasing anyone at all would be quite an achievement.

This is as true in the Church as anywhere else – maybe more so. Very often I am tasked with making something happen, and realise very quickly that there are diametrically opposed preferences held by the people involved, and many conflicting needs to be taken into consideration before any decisions can be made, and I feel like giving up before I even start. But I don’t. I take solace in the fact that it was ever thus, and that I’ll just have to do my best, and that it could be worse. After all, I could be Pope, and then I’d really have something to complain about.

(Just for the record, I am aware that I am not the Pope, and never will be, for an innumerable list of very good reasons. Thanks be to God).

Being in charge of things is not fun. Being the Vicar of Christ, and responsible for 1.3 billion Catholics, and also 900,000 other Christians, and indeed, another 6 billion human beings – because the Church has a duty to all of God’s children – is something else altogether. The Pope will, inevitably, be a target for any criticisms of the Catholic faith, and of Christianity and of religion generally. But I admit to being surprised at the growing venom often expressed towards him by fellow Catholics. It’s not that we should always agree with everything that Pope Francis says, or every decision that he makes. I’ve disagreed with his comments and administrative changes several times over the years. I also disagreed with the actions of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II on a number of occasions. (To date, no Pope ever seems to have noticed that I may have disagreed with them. Oh well). But a disagreement, or a sense that another choice might have been made, or a question regarding implementation of a new approach, has never led me to question that the Pope is the Pope, and entitled to do what he has done, because the buck stops with him. Sometimes, rarely, as a lowly parish priest, I also have to remind people that on some issues the buck stops with me, and that therefore I have to have the final word. Often I wish it was not so, but occasionally it is. I have no problem with questions being asked, or objections being raised, but at the end of the day the law of the Church must be followed, and the tenets of our faith must be adhered to, and my decision – hopefully achieved through prayer and with due diligence – has to be made. Having held life-and-death responsibilities (yes, really) in my previous career, I am used to making hard decisions, but in point of fact, that does not obviate the reality that I would often be very happy for someone else to have to make the difficult calls. The trouble is, it’s my obligation as parish priest to have to do so myself.

You may well feel that what I could dubiously refer to as my ‘authority’ in a parish (the dubium stemming from the fact that I have a great deal of responsibility but very little power) is not divinely bestowed or essential to priesthood, and you would be correct. The charisms of ordination do not include the freedom to tell people what to do, and any capacity for action in a parish is actually bestowed by the bishop. Of course, apostolic authority does emerge from the model of Church that we have evolved over two millennia, and this is delegated as appropriate to the episcopate, the presbyterate and the diaconate, and also to the laity, albeit in different ways for each constituency. But as I say, that model has developed, and may continue to develop in the future. The same is true of the papacy, but it is a fundamental tenet of the Catholic Faith that the Petrine ministry – the creation of a church leader by Jesus himself – is what assures a coherency and a specified authority within the Church here on Earth that guarantees the orthodoxy of the Magisterium, most especially in her teaching role.

Look again at the passage from Chapter 16, verses 13—20 of St Matthew’s Gospel[i] and remember that the Church teaches that Jesus is giving a great task to Peter following his recognition that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah who has been long awaited.[ii] Recall also that this was not a bestowal lightly made, but one accompanied by the promise of Our Lord that the Gates of Hades (or the Underworld, or Hell, depending on the translation that you read) will not prevail against this declaration of faith and the Church that is to be built upon it. Strong stuff, and when I was exploring my potential reception into the Catholic Church more than thirty years ago, it was a major consideration as to my eventual decision to take that leap of faith and ally myself to the authentic Church created by Jesus and promised by him to endure in all crises and against all assaults.

But that raises some challenges, of course. The same Church has faced many scandals and her members – often her leaders – have committed the most terrible of sins. Indeed, the Jesuit priest who instructed me in the faith acknowledged that there was no sin so great that some Pope had not committed it or at least colluded with it at some time in the Church’s history. Popes are human, not divine, and certainly not impeccable. And we are entitled to disagree with them, or criticise their behaviour, and question their decisions when there is a need to do so. But there are two things we are certainly not entitled to do, and which it is increasingly common to see and hear in Church circles, especially online and in social media, and which ironically emerge most often from people who claim to be faithful Catholics, and improbably, the true guardians of the Church’s traditions and teachings, and yet do not apparently see the need to adhere to basic Christian principles.

The first thing that we should be wary of is to question the teaching authority of the Church and the particular ecclesiastical powers held by the Pope, both as an individual and when in communion with his fellow bishops. The teaching role of the Magisterium is a far more complex matter than many people think: the Pope – and an Ecumenical Council, such as the Second Vatican Council – can make infallible proclamations, although they rarely do so: the charism of infallibility has only been invoked on a handful of occasions in the last two hundred years. However, both councils and the Pope himself are able to offer authoritative teachings without invoking infallibility, and authoritative means what is says – we are expected to listen and follow that teaching, and not merely treat it as random reflections on the subject at hand. Sometimes this may require what is referred to as ‘submission of will;’ that is to say, we may be struggling with a teaching, and should acknowledge this, but also concede that it is our duty to continue to pray upon and consider the teaching and not simply dismiss it. Jesus did not promise us that our faith would be easy. (Actually he said very much the opposite). And there are other occasions when the Pope offers advice, exhortation, food for thought – in fact, most of a Pope’s writings and speeches will fall into this broad category –  and will not require or demand action, but will suggest our prayerful reflection, and new ways of living out our Christian vocation. Finally, he may issue amendments or clarifications to Church law and practice, which are not teachings as such, but which clearly are authoritative, because the Pope is the supreme legislator of the Church. In any of the above exercises of the Petrine ministry and the Papal mandate, what the Pope says cannot simply be ignored or dismissed as unworthy of consideration.

And yet there is no shortage of individuals within the Church who believe that they have not only the right but the duty to tell us to do precisely that, to disregard the Pope and the Magisterium because – well, usually because he doesn’t understand tradition as well as they do, or doesn’t know as much about Canon Law as they do, or is leading the Church astray by not doing what they want him to do, or – well, or something they have decided he shouldn’t be doing. As I said, the teaching role of the Church is complicated, and we should all be humble in assuming that we understand how it works. But too many of these individuals not only think they are cleverer than the Pope, but that they are cleverer than the teams comprising the finest theological minds and canon law experts in the world with whom he consults on a daily basis. After all, why let a lack of experience, expertise and authority stop you from having your say? If you can’t think of anything else, just go ahead and call the Pope a heretic, or a modernist (which term appears to be exclusively used by people who don’t actually seem to know what it means) or, go the whole hog, and call him the Antichrist. And remember, it’s fellow Catholics that are doing this.

Which brings me to the second thing that we shouldn’t do. We should not treat the Pope – or in fact, anybody at all – with the disrespect or outright threatening manner in which so many of his critics indulge as a default means of discussing his actions and words. You may find it hard to believe, but there are numerous examples on the net of Catholics – including clergy and religious – calling for the imminent death of Pope Francis, praying that he dies soon so that we can have a ‘real’ Pope to take the reins of the Church and recreate it in the image of these detractors. Which is to say, a place of violence, disdain, and marginalisation of all peoples except the self-appointed elect who are righteous, as opposed to the great mass of unbelievers and pagans, which groups include most of the Catholic faithful who, unlike the elite few, just ‘don’t get it.’

And this aggressive minority never learn from their mistakes. No matter how often they misrepresent the Pope, tell blatant untruths about him, and insult and vilify him, they never apologise when events prove them wrong, never think better of their intemperate language, but instead continue to insist that they are right, and that the Pope is wrong, always, and without exception. And apparently, so was Jesus. Because they seem to believe that the Gates of Hell have prevailed against the Church that he founded, and that only they are holy enough to see this. When in fact, they are working hardest to undermine the Church and her leader here on Earth, the Vicar of Christ, in her ongoing mission to preach truth to all of humanity. If you genuinely believe that the Pope has made an error of judgment, or expressed something inadequately, counter this with cogent argument, with prayer, with compassion for the unrealistic expectation that he can please everyone. You are allowed to disagree with him on many issues. You are not allowed to set up a parallel magisterium in your front room, declare that a contrary view to your own is a heresy, or use ad hominem attacks in place of rational debate; and that prohibition applies to the most senior cardinals as much as it does to the most junior catechumen.

Why?

Because it’s not Christian, that’s why.

And you know what shocks me the most? That many Catholics, including some prelates of the Church, don’t seem to understand this. So it is that on a bad day, it is only the promise of Jesus that Hell will not prevail that keeps me going.

Holy Father, I consider myself very blessed to have become a minister of the Gospel during your pontificate. Reader, please pray for Pope Francis, that he will always do God’s work. And also for your parish priest, whoever he may be.

 

[i] See www.catholic.org/bible/book.php?id=47&bible_chapter=16

[ii] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 552 at www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P1L.HTM

• Previos reflections can be found under ‘Prayers and Reflections’ (scroll down the side bar to the bottom). This is the link to the October reflection: https://www.stedmundsrcbungay.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Fr-Mikes-reflection-on-difference-and-the-problem-of-evil.pdf