I was one of those people who woke up Monday morning and thought there was a mistake on my Facebook news feed. A mistake or a joke. The Pope, our beloved Papa Benedict XVI, had resigned?! My nine-year-old was still snuggled up beside me in bed, where she's been for several nights due to fever and other symptoms upon which I needed to keep a close watch. I said aloud, as I read, "The pope resigned this morning."
"Can he do that?" was her response.
"If he's doing it, that means he certainly can," I replied.
There are few mortal individuals who have ever understood what a pope can or cannot do--or most topics related to the Church and theology-- as well as the brilliant Benedict XVI. Later, came the flood of posts on social media about the other popes in history who have abdicated and the licit nature of the act according to Canon Law.
I'm good with this. I mean, I'm terribly sad and I still need time to process losing my second dear Papa. I wish this wasn't the end of his papacy. But, I'm good with his prayerful, thoughtful decision. Even more important, I'm good with the Church through all of this. I am stunned, but not shaken.
I couldn't help but think how this announcement fell into place with the Lenten idea that has been occupying my thoughts lately. I've found that some of my best times of spiritual growth during Lent have been when there's been a theme to the season for me, rather than a personal To-Do/Not-To-Do list with items to mark off. Sometimes, the theme was not chosen, but was only recognizable later as a result of the circumstances of my life at that time. For example, pregnancy during Lent or Advent has been very fruitful (see what I did there?) for me.
This year, based on so many things happening in my personal life, my community, and the larger Catholic world, the theme Authority seems to be foremost in my mind. My conversion story, like most, is long, but my major conversion actually happened a few years after I first became Catholic in 1997. It was in 2001 that I realized that I couldn't pick and choose my beliefs as I had done before I belonged to any church. I came to the realization that I had to delve deep into the faith and that meant I might not like what I found. That might mean leaving the Church and potential fall-out from that move for my marriage that was only a little over three years old.
By the grace of God, I delved deep, but found that it was not individual doctrines that made me secure in my decision to become Catholic. Every study found me coming back to the issue of authority. Part of that was natural because of my past. Although I was raised un-churched, anti-Catholicism was part of the very air around me in the mostly-Protestant section of Louisiana where I lived. It was when I could see the historical proof and logic of Christ having given His Church--His one, holy, and apostolic church--the authority to speak for Him and carry on His teaching on earth that the foundations of my faith became secure. It was when, through the total gift of faith, I accepted that authentic authority as being enough for me that I found peace.
The Church's authority is what keeps me from worrying about mass in the vernacular or women not covering their heads or. well, a pope abdicating, because if the Church says it's licit, that's enough for me. As one of my favorite Catholic speakers, Rosalind Moss, shares from her own experience as a zealous convert, "You don't have to be more Catholic than the Church." If you are personally called to do something like fast longer than the minimum 1 hour required before receiving Holy Communion, that's beautiful. But, it's a personal calling that you don't have to place upon other Catholics who fast for only 1 hour. I'm not saying that we should always be content with the minimum, but we should prayerfully discern what we are called to in our practice of the faith.
If the theme of my Lent is Authority, what will this look like?
Authority In Practice: As We Experience It Through the Church's Bishops and Priests
During this Lent, I want to focus again on my faith. I plan to return to some solid works of Church history and apologetics. I also want to avail myself of the sacraments more often. We live only a half - mile from our parish and there's no reason I can't get to the adoration chapel daily and worship at more daily masses. I want to establish a better schedule for simple family prayer and make sure we keep to our schedule of eating around the table on time.
I live in a community where we have five Catholic parishes, with 24-hour Eucharistic Adoration available at most of them. We have parish priests offering beautiful masses in lovely sanctuaries. These same priests would all welcome any person who wanted to meet privately for counselling or for confession and reconciliation. We have a parish bookstore full of great Catholic books and a lending library. I haven't been able to participate in all that is offered through our parish and diocese. We are privileged to have it all at our disposal and I want to get myself and my family on our knees at home and through the church doors more often.
Authority In Practice: As We Experience It In Our Home
When we spent our second summer in England while my husband was doing historical research, I found myself with time on my hands as he pored through archives in the library at Liverpool. In London, I went all over the city while he was in the archives, but in Liverpool, I stayed in the library and brought along my own reading. One of the books was a gospel study and the following verses had a huge impact on my life:
|“||When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. "Lord," he said, "my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly." Jesus said to him, "Shall I come and heal him?" The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, "Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour.||”|
At the time, I was an elementary school teacher who had previously taught middle school. From my first year of teaching, I developed a reputation for classroom management and an ability to handle some difficult students. Instead of humbly accepting those abilities as a gift, I began to be prideful. I took great pride in knowing how well-managed my classroom was and how rare it was for me to ever have to seek help from an administrator in my classroom. When I read the verses above, my whole focus in my classroom changed. It ordered my goals as a new parent, but in recent years, I have found myself in need of a refresher!
|In this painting, the centurion's very posture shows him kneeling before Jesus' authority.|
In the passage above, we find a centurion asking Jesus for help. A centurion was a Roman officer in charge of a century made up of 60-80 men. It took years as a soldier to become a centurion and they were the backbone of the Roman army. This centurion was a military man, raised in a system of rules and order. The rules and order were not for pageantry, but were necessary for a well-run army and navy. The military can only be effective when there is a true team working to complete a task or accomplish a goal. A key part of this teamwork is recognizing those who are in authority and then responding promptly to the exact directions of those persons. It places a responsibility on the officers to be just, well-informed, and well-trained.
This particular Roman centurion recognized Jesus as being a person with authority. Due to his military training, he was well-trained to respond to authority once he recognized it. His recognition of Jesus' authority was a gift of faith. His ability to respond to Jesus and to accept his word because of his authority was a result of his years of training.
So, this Lent, I want to focus on my role as an authority figure in my home. That means a renewed commitment and effort to being just, well-informed, and well-trained, so my children will grown up in a system of just authority in our home. That means they also need to see me as I respond to the authority of the Church in my own life. What do my words and actions say about how I feel towards the Church, her bishops, and her priests? Am I faithfully kneeling to the authority of the Church?
The goal for order and discipline in my home and our family time must not focus on efficiency, good citizenship, or avoiding embarrassment in public. The focus of our family's structure and time needs to be: responding properly to authority. And that starts with me. How do I use the time I am gifted with each day? What example do I set for how we should use our leisure time? Are my instructions given in a just manner or are they a result of frustration or anger? Do I exercise my authority differently when in the presence of "witnesses?"
Leave it to Holy Mother Church to take care of me. She provides me with the season of Lent to focus on Christ, through prayer, fasting, study, and the sacraments. It is my prayer that this Lent leads to a more just and better-prepared mother for my children and a structure for our home life that is more conducive to them responding properly--and lovingly--to my authority. The small earthly goal for Lent, so that we can hope to receive the same response as the centurion one day, in heaven: "Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would."
May your Lenten journey be fruitful and may God bless the Church through this time of transition. Amen.