It never fails, for good or for bad. I wear my Roman collar when I fly on planes. Often a passenger seated next to me asks if I am a Catholic priest. When I answer that I am a priest, this passenger may add that he or she also is a Catholic, that this or that Church teaching or policy is a good idea or maybe a bad idea, or that something about the Church is puzzling.
Or, the passenger might say that he or she has no connection with the Catholic Church but has this or that question or opinion.
So, nothing was unexpected one day on a flight when the man seated next to me inquired if indeed were I a Catholic priest. Learning that I am a priest, he told me that he was a fundamentalist Protestant, and that he studied the Bible every day and had done so for years. I would have been edified by his devotion to the Scriptures had he not then told me that, based upon his reading of the Bible, Catholics were either fools or servants of Satan. Albeit wanting to be broad-minded, I was put on a certain defensive.
It continued for a while. I tried to respond here and there but was shot down every time. “Paul says this” or “Luke’s Gospel says that.”
Finally, he challenged me outright, personally, not about some theological theoretical. Why did I not see the light, forsake not just my priesthood but the Catholic faith, and join his fundamentalist church?
I told him that I could never abandon either the priesthood or the Church, but I could certainly never consider connecting with his denomination, at least as he seemed to have described it.
“Why?” he asked with a mixture of indignation and amazement in his voice.
“Because, frankly, what you have said about your church in the last analysis proves to me that your church is not actually founded on the Bible. It misses, and evidently even refutes, too much in the Bible.”
He was stunned and wanted to know what I meant.
I told him that among my favorite Scriptures is the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles, of course, chronologically follows the four Gospels, in which the identity and personality of Christ are revealed.
(I revel in the Liturgies of the Word every Easter season. Almost every day presents a lesson from Acts.)
Acts appeals to me since it reports how the contemporaries of Jesus received what was recorded in the Gospel. Paul, for instance, who apparently never knew the Lord during the actual public ministry, came to be the foremost spokesman for the Christian message.
In almost every chapter, Acts presents a figure either who turned to Christ or rejected Christ. It is fascinating to think about them.
Also fascinating is how Acts describes the early community formed by believers in Christ, its principles, its structures and its practices.
In my reading, many circumstances were absolutely critical in this first Christian community, and I see them prevailing today in the Catholic Church but missing from the Reformed churches.
My seatmate asked for examples of the circumstances. I mentioned the obvious primacy of Peter. I mentioned the essential involvement of the apostles, and that this involvement endured through persons whom the apostles chose to represent them. I referred to the authority possessed by the apostles. Consider their choosing Matthias to fill the place renounced by Judas. They exercised the authority of Christ. Consider all the acts accomplished with divine power by the apostles. Examples are many.
On another level I noted how importantly the Catholic Church takes, and always has taken, active, organized care for the sick and the unfortunate. This is a fact. Service to the poor identifies the Church in the minds of millions.
No agent outdoes the Catholic Church throughout the world in its attention to the troubled and the hurting. From Anchorage to Johannesburg, Bangkok to Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver to Jerusalem, Baltimore to Sydney, the Catholic Church is there for the needy, and it has been there for the needy for 2,000 years.
It is nothing new. St. Vincent de Paul, as splendid as he was in his vision and in his bold action for the poor and the sick, was merely the successor in his time of an ancient Catholic tradition.
Hardly would I ever suggest that fundamentalists are absent of compassion or generosity, but nothing, utterly nothing, excels the Catholic Church in the world in caring for persons with problems.
No religious body has a prouder history of confronting the world’s powers with the call to righteousness and regard for the Gospel than the Catholic Church, from Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador to St. Thomas More to the apostle Paul himself.
Without being unpleasant, I simply said that the Reformed churches miss so much of this. Then, when it comes to values and incentives to piety, the Reformed churches also miss much. Obviously, thank God, they hold many Christian values.
Interestingly, unless expressed in very broad terms, they have no tradition of what theologians long ago identified as the Evangelical Counsels — poverty, chastity and obedience — all drawn from the clearly presented example and teachings of the Lord.
Never would I imply that any logical fundamentalist would abide greed, immorality or nihilism, but for a millennium and a half in Western Civilization, longer in Eastern Christianity, these ideals have been strenuously put forward by Catholic belief and practice, and indeed for all this time the Catholic Church has provided a framework through which Catholics can pursue the Evangelical Counsels with the very commitment of their lives through the organized consecrated life.
In a word, concluding, I said that the Catholic Church shows to me, and no other theological setting or system does show to me, the full, wide meaning of the Resurrection that, in the Catholic Church’s teachings and actions, Christ lives. Through it, and in it, the Church of Acts survives. In the Church today, the Lord lives.
By Eastertime 2015, Pope Francis will have been seated in Peter’s chair for two years. He has taken an extraordinary place in the world. It has been a blessing for the Church and for the Gospel.
Not to downplay his role, it should be noted that, in many instances, more than a few pontiffs have been revolutionaries. In living memory, Pope Pius XII gave added vigor and respectability to the Liturgical Movement and set the stage for the liturgy as it is celebrated today by his liturgical reforms, such as his revision of the Holy Week ceremonies, all of which everyone takes for granted.
Pope St. John XXIII opened the windows of the Church to admit the scents of the world and, in the process, turned the eyes of the Church outward, and nothing could be more seated in the Gospels.
Blessed Pope Paul VI emphatically focused the Church on its duty to care for the poor, and nothing could be more in the model of Christ. Stunning the world, he visited every continent, including North America. He made the papacy literally a worldwide presence.
Then all too shortly came Pope John Paul I, with his gentleness and willingness to forgive.
After him was Pope St. John Paul II. It would take many a computer disk to hold his record of contributions to Catholics’ understanding of their faith and of themselves.
Pope Benedict XVI followed him, and he gave the Church the great gift of deeper reflection upon its own teachings and upon Revelation itself.
All prove, at least in my mind, that Christ — and Peter — live.
Now Pope Francis leads, and speaks for, the Church.
None of his recent predecessors, certainly none of his predecessors listed above, was unknown to people around the world, but he has made a special name for himself by his own philosophy, and maybe it is surprising, maybe it is sad, but many say that his views are utterly revolutionary.
He is undertaking certain new policies and changing procedures, such as those involving the Roman Curia, or even official Church procedures involving what has become an entire class of Catholics, the civilly divorced and re-married. He forthrightly calls us to love the people in other new social classes the culture now fully accepts, those cohabitating, and persons in same gender relationships.
The Church constantly throughout history has faced, and created pastoral approaches, to social and cultural developments.
To turn attention now to current developments, and to explore options, is not a repudiation of the Gospel, but an affirmation of the heritage of the Church.
In the Church, to repeat, the Lord lives. He still heals. He still teaches. He still welcomes. He still loves.
Going beyond the particulars, such as the revision of rules about appointing monsignors, or judging the effectiveness of this or that Vatican office, Pope Francis has directed, maybe even pushed, Catholics and many, many others in the world to those great Evangelical Counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience.
What could be more Catholic? What could be more historically Catholic? What could be more fundamental to the Gospels?
Mea culpa. At times, the Holy Father stings my conscience. Am I poor in spirit and indeed in faith? Am I chaste or too narcissistic? Am I obedient in all the tangible ways implied by the life that I freely have chosen for myself.
Without jumping on my soapbox and preaching to the choir, these questions, posed almost daily by Pope Francis, await our intimate, personal answers if we wish to be worthy disciples.
The Lord lives. He lives, and will live again, in all of us who are poor of heart, chaste and obedient because we love the Father and the Son whom the Father sent us to be our Redeemer and the first-born of our human race in everlasting glory.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.