I am a convert to the Catholic faith, having been raised in a non-denominational Christian home and subsequently drifting between various stages of belief and doubt, though always claiming to believe in Jesus even if I didn’t live for Him.
In my last couple months of RCIA—as I enthusiastically looked forward to entering into full communion with the Church at the 2013 Easter Vigil—Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis emerged on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square.
I remember when I watched it on television how astonished I was at the jubilation of the crowds at this moment. The last time I had watched a large crowd gathered in the same area was in 2005 as Pope John Paul II endured his final hours. As a Protestant high schooler, I remember being deeply touched by the outpouring of sympathy across the world, even though I had reservations about the pope and was glad he had no authority over me.
Years later, when I began seriously investigating the claims of the Catholic Church, I came across a rather one-sided 2009 debate on YouTube about whether or not the Catholic Church was a “force for good in the world.” The allegations leveled against Pope Benedict XVI by the atheist team—the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens and the comedian Stephen Fry—disturbed me. This, in addition to the media’s withering criticism of Benedict’s alleged rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying SSPX bishop, led me to think that maybe the Catholic Church was a cult that I would do well to avoid.
Based on what people said about him, Benedict just seemed to be a conniving demagogue who wanted to conceal the Church’s crimes, past and present. It was obvious that he didn’t care much about non-Catholics, and he probably desired to bring back the Inquisition and was willing to torture anyone who stood in his way. And John Paul II before him? Well, he must have just pretended to be compassionate in order to sucker people into joining or remaining in the Church.
Enter Light of the World, Benedict’s 2010 book-length interview with journalist Peter Seewald. As I began turning its pages, I quickly discovered that far from being the autocratic bigot described by Hitchens, Fry, and many other critics, the pope was actually a profoundly thoughtful, kind, and empathetic person. It became clear to me that he cared deeply about victims of abuse and oppression, and these were rooted firmly in his love for Almighty God and His Creation.
I had to admit that I had been duped into believing slander and falsehoods about Pope Benedict XVI, and I learned my lesson not to assume the worst about the Vicar of Christ…at the time, at least.
After I was received into the Church, I grew in my Catholic faith through wonderful experiences including missionary work and a lot of time in Eucharistic Adoration. At the same time, Pope Francis was making headlines around the world for some of his words and actions. Truth be told, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention at first—though I remember being fond of what I perceived as his more “loose” style. I thought, “maybe this is exactly what the Church and the world need right now.”
In 2015, I began pursuing a Master’s Degree in Theology. While moral theology was by no means my favorite discipline, I figured I should pay attention to the debate in the Church over marriage and the family. The problem was, I decided to listen to only one side—and it was not the side that was always kind to the Holy Father.
Like many Catholics, I eventually became concerned that the Holy Father wanted to “overturn”—or at least significantly downplay—Church teaching. “He’s a Jesuit after all,” I would joke with like-minded friends. I began digesting some traditionalist media, though I have to say that even then, parts of it left a sour taste in my mouth. Nevertheless, I became convinced that Pope Francis was leading the Church down a dangerous path and needed to be openly opposed.
Around the same time, I had a dinner conversation with an extended family member who had grown up in a devout Catholic household but was also deeply hurt by the Church’s response to the abuse crisis, as well as other problems in the Church. While I didn’t know how to respond to her, I remember the Holy Spirit nudging me to just listen and be compassionate. “This is what accompaniment looks like.” During this conversation, she mentioned how she was moved by Pope Francis and his approach.
My suspicions of the Holy Father continued, however, and by the time the Summer of Shame rolled around in 2018, culminating in Archbishop Viganò’s explosive allegations, I went from believing that Pope Francis was merely misguided to now convinced that he was evil and wanted to cover up the Church’s sins and destroy anyone in his path. (Sound familiar?)
I digested more reactionary media and, perhaps uncoincidentally, prayed with a lot less fervor. The narrative was now clear: Pope Francis stood in the way of the Truth and Majesty of the Catholic Faith and would surely be declared an antipope someday. He was controlled by Marxists, globalists, and the so-called “Lavender Mafia.” Archbishop Vigano and others were bravely standing up to these dark forces. In fact, as strange as it seemed, I even became convinced that what President Donald Trump was promoting seemed closer to authentic Catholicism than the hogwash coming out of Rome.
Again, however—as was the case with my misgivings about Benedict and John Paul II years before—something wasn’t sitting right in my soul. It felt like I was looking at a picture, and no matter how hard I tried to take it in, it just seemed off. What was it though? Surely there could be no doubt that Francis was heterodox. After all, hadn’t some highly regarded theological minds whom I greatly respect already answered that question? And wasn’t it only leftists who supported him these days?
Without burdening the reader with too many details, the turning point came in this way: I simply started to listen to the Holy Father himself. “What was Francis actually saying? If I only read his words and not the commentary of others about his words, what would I make of them?”
The truth is that I had relied on ‘Cliffs Notes’ versions of the pope’s speeches, documents, and statements. As I became more suspicious of him, I relied more and more on what reactionary figure X had to say. Indeed, almost everything I knew about the Holy Father came from what others told me to think.
It was almost the exact same blunder I had made regarding Benedict years before, except that this time the criticism was coming from within the Church. I realized that this was not only unfair to Pope Francis, but pure intellectual laziness on my end.
I knew that I had promised fidelity to the Magisterium and therefore the Pope when I entered the Church, yet I had become my own Magisterium of sorts. If I didn’t understand or like something Pope Francis said, I conveniently disregarded it—just as so many of other brothers and sisters in the faith have sadly done. I thought I had the correct Catholicism and not the Vicar of Christ.
As I began to reconsider my opposition to Pope Francis, I began to notice that some “faithful Catholic” figures whom I greatly admired began descending into theological and political foolishness. The flirting with QAnon conspiracy theories, the belief that the 2020 election had been completely stolen from Trump (not to mention the downplaying of—or even outright participation in—the January 6th storming of the US Capitol), the absolute refusal to speak out against racism, and the insensitivity to the suffering and fear of so many during the COVID-19 pandemic were all beginning to weigh on my conscience. “Surely, this has gone way too far. Where is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not to mention the rational thought and prudence that we as Catholics are supposed to value?”
Slowly, the picture became clearer to me and I realized that it was I who had drifted from the center of the Catholic faith and into worldly, ideological things. I acknowledged Jesus with my lips, but my heart was far from Him. Pope Francis, despite his human weakness, was still there in the Barque of Peter and I was duty-bound to be faithful to his teachings.
Does this mean that I no longer struggle with certain things that the Holy Father says and does? Of course not. In fact, I think he would understand that. Popes are poor, broken sinners like all of us, and they carry a tremendous spiritual weight on their shoulders. Like his predecessors, Francis has been entrusted with a unique position in the Body of Christ and is subjected to attacks from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But I stand firmly behind him and will continue to because it is my duty as a child of God who was blessed beyond measure to discover the Church that Jesus Christ established. Where Peter is, there too is that Church.
Image: Vatican News