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Coming In under the Flag of the Holy See

alec vanderboom

My tears at the sight of our Holy Father yesterday came from the recognition that I’ve spent most of my thirty-three years without his guidance & protection. As a baptized Christian, I’ve always been loved and prayed over since my birth by each successor to the Chair of Saint Peter. The “block” on following the Pope was entirely my own.

I come from a line of rebels that stretch back 450 years. An Irish Protestant ancestor signed a petition demanding that King Henry VIII break with the Catholic Church back in 1520. King Henry, spurred on by lust & a desire for an illicit divorce, fell into the “pride” trap that he could create a more pure religion without the Pope. He started “The Church of England,” which had the same Mass minus that pesky oversight of the Vicar of Christ.

I got baptized and raised in a reform movement of the Anglican Church, called the Methodist Church. My church experience as a young girl was loving & sweet, if a bit “vague.” We had communion. We had “ministers” who wore the same collar as a priest. We said the Apostle’s Creed which recognized “one catholic church.” But we definitely weren’t Catholic! That was sort of the guiding principle of our form of Protestantism, “we weren’t under Rome.”

How we grew up to hate the Pope. I didn’t think of the Church as the “whore of Babaylon” but I had a definite distaste for all thing Roman Catholic. All those unnecessary ornaments on the church walls—things that detracted from my “pure” contemplation of Jesus. That weird insistence on confession before a priest, I could go straight to Jesus for forgiveness anytime I wanted to! And the horror, oh the horror, of letting some guy in Rome dictate what I should and should not believe. Who was he? Why should I listen to him?

When I started RICA in response to this hard to define, yet insistent notion after my marriage that I should “figure out this religion that my future kids will be raised in,” I sat tensely in my chair during my first class. All of the people around the table introduced themselves one by one. Each spoke of a strong, strong urge to become a Catholic. “Well, that is not me!” I thought. “I’m quite happy being a Methodist!” and I mentally rattled off three major breaks with the Catholic Church, “worship of Mary, denial of birth control and following those “made up” doctrines of the Pope, such as Mary’s lasting virginity and her immaculate conception.” (Here’s where I pause to encourage readers of my blog to laugh out loud, since I’m now a devoted Pro-lifer, consecrated to Our Lady, love to worship at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and just started crying after seeing our Holy Father!)

One by one, the loving Sister who ran my RICA class showed me that the “Church of Rome” I had divorced myself so completely, barred little resemblance to the actual Catholic Church. I found that everything I had learned about Jesus was embraced in my new church. Yet at the same time, there were so many more spiritual wonders to embrace and contemplate. The rosary drew me closer to Jesus. The Eucharist carried me along the river of grace without my puny efforts to paddle myself. The sacrament of Marriage made my own commitment to my husband more certain, more secure since it no longer held the possibility to “divorce” when times got too tough.

A few months before Easter Vigil, I found myself ready to convert—except for the Pope question. Why should I have to listen to him? I hadn’t answered my inbred skepticism by drenching myself into the teachings of Church on the seat of Saint Peter. Peter wasn’t really a “saint” to me yet. I’d read the bible before, that didn’t answer any Pope’s legitimacy questions. To my Protestant eyes, Peter was just one of the gang of twelve. The whole apostles were just “tag-alongs” to Jesus during his ministry. We were all called now to be “disciples” of Christ. Why didn’t we get an equal say in how the church was governed. After all, isn’t democracy a good thing?

During my time in RCIA, my husband and I were living nine hours apart. Jon was in his final months of a masters program in Rochester, New York. Like a fool, I had decided that I couldn’t abandon my important “saving a small corner of Appalachia” job to follow my husband to on a temporary grad school quest. As a result of my foolish stubbornness, I gave myself room to work out my new feelings towards Catholicism entirely on my own. I also made it incredibly stressful on my husband who faced all the overwhelming tasks of his final thesis with a roommate, instead of a wife.

By February, we had both realized that this “living as devoted husband and wife, just in different states for nine months” was an incredibly stupid idea. Jon hated sleeping alone. I hated not being able to make him a cup of tea & rub his feet after a ten-hour shift doing thesis work. To compensate for our misery, I drove to Rochester with our three dogs every two weeks. Jon vowed to spend the entire visit outside of his computer lab. We’d rent a hotel room and play house. Each Saturday we’d take a drive into the country and then watch double features at our favorite “artsy” movie theater. On Sunday afternoon, I’d get back into my car and start the next 13 day count-down until we could be a family again.

During one of these February movie theater trips, I suggest that we watch “Witness to Hope.” I walked into that movie thinking it would just be one of the many documentaries we had consumed that winter. I walked out of that movie theater shaking and crying. I remember that I was so shaken afterwards that Jon couldn’t take us to Spot Coffee, our usual post-movie hang out. I had no idea that Jon Paul II suffered so acutely under the Natzi Regime. The story about how his fellow forced quary laborers would cover for “Karol” so that he could have time to read theology moved me. I made Jon buy me a copy of “Witness to Hope.”

When we finally reach “The Pope” a few weeks later in my RICA class, I made a silent decision of conversion in my heart. “I don’t know about the Papacy in general. I’m not sure about those “from the chair” statements. But I do know this Pope and I’ll gladly follow such a holy, devout man.”

I joined the church at Easter Vigil 2002. I joined the year of the priest scandals (which didn’t phase me but did give great hope to my RICA leader and new parish home.) John Paul II is “my pope.” He was an artist, like me. He was a world-traveler and a man of great faith and great charisma. He is the Pope under which I gladly decided to live in obedience under his gentle direction.

Pope Benedict is also “my Pope”. He is the gentle, humble presence that made me devote myself not to the “man” who is the Pope, but to the Papacy itself. I love Pope Benedict for his intelligence, his clear, concise writings, his focus & love of his priestly duties. Yet Pope Benedict himself helped me to trust that the Holy Spirit guides the selection of each Pope as one who is truly "God's Choice" for each moment in church history. I’ve come to adore that fact that we still have a “Chair of Saint Peter” 2,000 years after Christ. I love that we are protected from the current splintering of the Anglican church. I love that in this confusing, chaotic post-modern shred of Christianity, I can easily tune my ear to hear the call of our “one Shepard” on earth. I’m a lost sheep of Christ, who finally found my true Shepard. I’m so grateful to two Popes, best-friends in real life, who helped me happily commit myself to the banner of the Holy See.