On June 23, I will celebrate twenty-two years of ordination to the priesthood. Born in 1974, I belong to what Catholics fondly call the John Paul II generation. In this brief essay, I will reflect on how the experience of my Catholic youth shaped one particular aspect of my Catholic life, and then I will offer a plea from my heart to my brothers and sisters in the Faith.
I am a cradle Catholic. My story is unremarkable. My parents ensured that my three older sisters and I attended Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation. While my father was always faithful, my mother took a more active role in the church, mainly through her involvement in the charismatic renewal. “The renewal,” as it was often called, was an important movement in the United States Catholic Church in the 1970s and 1980s. I have fond childhood memories of accompanying my mother to the Friday night charismatic prayer meeting in our parish hall. I especially enjoyed being treated to pizza after the meeting.
As I entered my teenage years, like many young people, I was simply going through the motions. I still went to Mass every Sunday because my parents never allowed us to miss it. But I wasn’t concerned about living my faith and I certainly was not thinking about the priesthood. When I was sixteen, the Lord used my maternal grandmother to intervene in my life. She asked me if I’d like to go with her on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. As a sixteen-year-old, a free trip to Europe and a week out of school was very appealing, so I accepted her invitation.
What I didn’t expect was a week that would change my life. Regardless of one’s feelings about the alleged apparitions in Medjugorje, that week affected me deeply. I felt the Lord’s presence more powerfully than I had before. I came to understand the difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus in a personal way. When I returned home, I got actively involved in my parish youth group and I developed a life of personal prayer.
As a young person, I was blessed to have good priests in my life. I saw joy in these priests and a passion for the gospel. I witnessed their fidelity to the Lord and the Church. Soon, I began to experience an attraction to the priesthood and a desire to preach the gospel, to help others to know Jesus as I was coming to know him.
As I became more involved in the church, I also became acquainted with more adults in our community. I was involved in our youth group but also enjoyed the weekly adult prayer meeting. These adults were more educated in the Faith than I was, so I looked to them as examples. The Catholic life was beginning to define me as I saw it define them. What do I mean by “Catholic life”? It was the life that we tried to live every day: love for the Lord, love for the Church, daily prayer, studying our Faith, reading Scripture, love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, praying the rosary, devotion to the saints, spending time in Eucharistic adoration, frequent confession, Sunday Mass (daily Mass if possible). And all of these practices were meant to overflow into our love for and service to others, especially the less fortunate. I came to understand that at the heart of our Catholic Life, besides those I just mentioned, was fidelity to the Church. And fidelity to the Church always meant a deep love for the pope.
I decided to attend the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a decision that I count as one of the greatest blessings of my life. My years at Franciscan University were the most formative I have ever had. My Catholic life deepened in unimaginable ways during those four years. I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year abroad on the Austrian campus, which I still count as one of the most profound experiences of my life. One of the most memorable moments for us that semester was when we traveled to Rome. While there, we attended a Papal audience, and after the audience we had our picture taken with our hero, Pope John Paul II. We were ecstatic to see our spiritual father in person.
As I studied theology during my undergraduate years, I learned about the beauty of our Faith. My love for Jesus and our Catholic Faith grew more and more. And as my love for Jesus and our Faith deepened, my love for the pope and my respect for his office deepened. It was abundantly clear in my Catholic circles at home, at Franciscan University, and eventually in the seminary: as Catholics, we always love Christ’s vicar, his visible representative on earth, the pope.
To be clear, I understood that every pope is imperfect. He is a man and a sinner like all of us. In my Catholic circles, we understood that the pope does not always speak infallibly. He can make mistakes and errors in personal judgment, but not when it comes to officially teaching on matters of faith and morals. It was understood that, as a Catholic, you don’t need to like a particular pope necessarily; however, your love for the pope remains even if you don’t like the pope. What was inconceivable in my Catholic circles was disdain for the pope, distrust of the pope, or claims that the pope was attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith. To think this way about the pope was anathema.
I share the above reflection because this was the Catholic milieu in which I was formed. As I reflect, what I learned was that I should always be interiorly receptive to the pope and his words. Never should I possess an attitude of interior resistance to his person or words, and never should I hate the pope or spread hatred towards him.
As I scroll through social media or peruse Catholic online media, one can imagine how disgusted I am as I see Catholics who claim supreme orthodoxy hating the pope and spreading hatred towards him. This disdain has risen to the highest levels in the Church. Recently, an American bishop claimed that Pope Francis is programmatically attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith. To believe (and to state!) that the validly elected Successor of St. Peter, the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, is attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith is about as contrary to Catholic thought as believing that the devil is trying to lead souls to Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom to one apostle: St. Peter. Along with the keys, Jesus prayed specifically for Peter and gave Peter his divine protection. Again, this protection does not guard the pope against committing sin or making mistakes in his life and ministry; but Christ’s protection does protect Peter from undermining the Deposit of Faith.
Every pope brings the totality of his life, his own history, to the Chair of Peter. His personal experiences inform his theological thought and ministerial approach which are always rooted in the theology of the Church. St. John Paul II confronted Communism because he witnessed its horrors. Pope Benedict challenged the dictatorship of relativism because he, too, saw firsthand how relativism harms the Church and the world. Pope Francis brings his own history to the papacy. As a priest who ministered in the Third World, his call for mercy, his plea for the Church to be poor for the poor, and his challenge to bring the Gospel to the peripheries, all flow from his entire life and ministry.
I am pleading with my fellow Catholics: To all of you who embraced and loved St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI; to you who were interiorly open to their person and words; to you who never distrusted them, who never disdained them, who never spread hatred for them; to you who believe that Christ prayed for Peter, who gave Peter his divine protection, who believe that the Vicar of Christ cannot undermine the Deposit of Faith; I am pleading with you to renounce and reject the cancer of hatred that some Catholics have embraced toward Pope Francis. This spirit of hatred and distrust toward the Holy Father is not of God and it must be firmly renounced in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray for Pope Francis, that he will continue to be attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. And may we, his spiritual daughters and sons, always embrace him with a spirit of filial love and profound respect.
Image: Vatican Media.