5 Things to Understand About Catholicism Before Pope Francis Gets Here

5 Things to Understand About Catholicism Before Pope Francis Gets Here

If you think children get excited when Santa Claus is coming to town, you should get a load of us Catholics anticipating Pope Francis' trip to the US. Certainly, there are little Catholic grannies everywhere just dusting off the good china, and considering taking the plastic covers off their couches, just in case.

No doubt the Media is really excited too, holding God-knows-how-many meetings about how to best flood your news feed with controversial stories about the Pope in our midst. So before you click on any of those links, you've done the right thing by clicking on this one. As a Catholic convert, and former news media professional, there are a few things I recommend keeping in mind while watching or reading the news--about the Pope, and about anything else for that matter.

1. Most news media professionals do not understand how Catholicism actually works. And so, they may not do a completely excellent job explaining what's going on. Catholics who understand the faith have to be particularly cautious when watching a secular news story about the Pope, because we are prone to certain head injuries--particularly, our eyeballs getting stuck backwards in the sockets from too much rolling, and self-inflicted palm strikes to the forehead. In a perfect world, journalists would understand everything they're talking about, and explain it all really well so we can understand it too. But usually, an American journalist discussing Catholicism is a lot like an American 9th grader trying to explain the French Revolution, and maaaaaybe earning a C+. This is not meant to be an insult to any of my friends and former colleagues still working in the news industry (Seriously, guys. Call me if you have any questions). It is a tough job, and I'm convinced that most journalists are trying their best to understand and explain this totally different paradigm from the one they are used to. So when you do end-up reading or watching anything about Pope Francis and the Catholic Church--or when you read or watch anything, for that matter--pay very close attention to the following:

  • Who is talking?
  • What are they trying to accomplish by saying what they're saying?
  • What gives this person credibility about this subject?
  • How much of the story am I getting? And from what angle?
  • Is it possible that this information is being taken out of context?

Sometimes, some of the stuff in the secular media will be pretty alright. They're not total morons; actually pretty intelligent. There are two parts to their job, though--to inform you, and to get your ratings. So most of the things you hear should be taken, as they say, with a grain of salt. And sometimes, even an entire bowl of salted caramel popcorn may not be entirely inappropriate.

2. Not everything the Pope says is infallible. In fact, most of it isn't. This is one of the most misunderstood things about the Papacy (erudite word for "Pope-dome"). The Pope has a gift of infallibility which he can use to guide the church when necessary, but he is not an infallible person. This will become more clear in my next point, I think. Just know that we don't believe the Pope is a deity. His position is very important to the Church, and I personally think Pope Francis is a very holy and wise leader. Many others agree. We love his humility, trust his authenticity, and believe he has so much to teach us. But is he capable of making mistakes? Of course! And he might. But we still love him, and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to guide him in his effort to guide us through this time in human history. 

3. Other Catholic Bishops might not agree with the Pope on a few issues, and that's totally normal. I'm completely expecting the Media to lose their minds if they get wind of any interaction like this, and make crazy speculations as if the future of the Catholic Church is in jeopardy. So let me just go ahead and encourage everybody to calm down. Catholic Bishops are directly descended from the original 12 Apostles that you get to know in the Bible. Seriously, you can trace them all the way back. It's pretty cool! Anyway, the Pope is one of them. He takes Peter's position, or Peter's seat, if you will. In order to understand how these men relate to each other, it's helpful to consider how the Apostles related to each other in the New Testament--particularly the relationship between Peter and Paul. In Acts 15, we find Paul--an Apostle of Jesus Christ, though not one of the original 12--involved in a conflict about circumcision and whether or not it's still necessary for salvation. Everybody's in an uproar, so Paul and Barnabas travel afar and ask the Elders if the gentiles can keep their foreskin or what (roughly translated). There is a discussion about it, and then... Peter speaks. He gives this awesome speech that includes him saying, "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15:11). So Paul and Barnabas go back and tell everybody what Peter said, and that is that. It's settled. The Church moves forward. 

This is an example of the first Head Apostle--what we now call he Pope--speaking on behalf of the Holy Spirit to clarify the faith in a way that cannot be disputed. This is how Papal Infallibility works on the rare occasions when it is necessary, and there are certain conditions that need to be met, which you can learn about if you want to study Catholicism. Keep in mind, too, that these first Christians did not have the Bible as we know it, because they were still busy being the Bible characters. The official collection of books we call The New Testament would not appear until several hundred years later. So this Apostolic authority was the only indisputable authority the first Christians had. 

Oh, but wait! What do we see in Galatians 2:11? Paul is getting all up in Peter's face about something! (Cephas is Peter, incase you didn't already know that.) Was Peter actually making a mistake? Maybe he was. He did that a lot in the Gospels, so I wouldn't put it past him at this point. It's debatable, and a conversation for another time, but Paul definitely seemed to think Peter was in the wrong. He argued with Peter publicly, and then wrote about it in a letter. So when we look at these two accounts in scripture, we see that Paul obviously understands and submits to Peter's authority as the leader, but still calls him out when he thinks he's in the wrong. And that's pretty much how it's been ever since. Sometimes, Popes make mistakes. Sometimes, it's the other Bishops. Sometimes, it could go either way, or both ways. But when it's time for the Holy Spirit to make an indisputable point about faith and morals, He has Peter sit everybody down and say, "Look, this is how it is." And that, my friends, is papal infallibility. 

4. Pope Francis is teaching Catholicism, not changing it. He's the first Pope from somewhere other than Europe for hundreds and hundreds of years. He's also the first Jesuit Pope, and the first Pope from the Americas. Of course he's got something different to bring to the table, and it's all very exciting to watch! But what he is teaching is already part of Catholicism. The word Catholic means universal, meaning it is a church for the whole human race. We've got everybody on this train from St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi to Blessed Mother Teresa to Stephen Colbert to the Italian Mafia bringing up our not-so-saintly caboose. We're united in our Apostolic Tradition, Holy Scripture, Sacraments and creeds, but we are a highly diverse people as well. What Pope Francis is doing is actually highlighting and bringing to public attention some lesser known aspects of our collective Catholic faith. He's definitely not reinventing it, though.

5. The Pope is not actually the main Head of the Church. He's the Head Bishop of the Church, yes. But make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still the Head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Not only do Catholics believe 1 Corinthians 12 and Colossians 1:18; we are the Church whose authority defined those verses as sacred scripture in the first place. You are welcome, all of Christendom! Removed from its context of the Apostolic Tradition, the Bible is super confusing and Christianity is all dysfunctional and schismatic and wearying. But the Catholic Church--the Original Church--is still very much a high functioning, living, breathing organism. Granted, it's an organism made of humans, and so in a lot of ways, it is just as messy as anything else involving humans. Yet, with Christ as the Head, we are one holy body with many parts that has necessarily evolved over the past 2,000 years (I don't know about you, but I started out as one cell, and then eventually grew limbs and more complexities that I've needed for survival).  This Body has one single genetic code that produces all different types of cells, tissue, organs and systems. In my understanding, the Pope and the rest of the Bishops function kind of like this Body's central nervous system, and the rest of the clergy are the smaller nerves that branch out every which way. They deliver vital messages from the brain to the rest of the body and back. They cause us to feel and sense things, both good and bad. They help us function and understand what's going on and what we're supposed to do about it. We get onto them about stuff. (We get on Jesus' nerves?) They help all of these individual cells function as one body. That's what makes the clergy so essential, and so highly valued. And that is also why it's so damaging when they are being dysfunctional. But make no mistake--Jesus is still the High Priest. He is still in charge, always has been, and always will be.  

So when Pope Francis comes up on the screen with a headline that says something like, "Pope Shocks Americans By Saying This and That", and you hear someone say, "Oh look! It's the God of the Catholics telling them their religion needs to change!" ...You can just stay calm, grab your bowl of salted caramel popcorn, and go over those questions from my first point again. Sound good?

If you're interested in learning more about the Papacy, I recommend reading

Pope Fiction: 30 Myths and Misconceptions About the Papacy by Patrick Madrid. It's a fascinating read for anyone who just likes to know things about stuff. 

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