I was not born into a Catholic family, although I do happen to be named after a close Catholic friend of the family. In fact, for much of my childhood, my branch of the Bradford clan wasn’t particularly religious at all. We were nominally Christians of some protestant flavor, but we weren’t weekly churchgoers and the faith didn’t play a particularly strong role in our lives. I have only two distinctly ‘religious’ memories from my early life: I recall attending a religious preschool (affiliated with Fairfax Church of Christ), and I recall my father reading the nativity story from Holy Scripture each Christmas eve.
When I was in fifth grade, around the age of ten, we began attending weekly services at Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. This was the beginning of my more-than-sixteen years of affiliation with the United Methodist Church (UMC) denomination. I received the Sacrament of Baptism there and then went through the Methodist confirmation process.
As I grew—physically and in my faith—I went on mission trips and participated in youth groups, particularly as part of the Lane Memorial UMC youth group in Altavista, Virginia. For a [brief] time, I even discerned whether I might be called to become a Methodist pastor. In adulthood, back at Community of Faith, I served on the church’s administrative council, served on the staff/parish relations committee, and represented the church several times as a lay delegate at the UMC’s Virginia Annual Conference.
For all of this time, the Catholic Church—and, by extension, the papacy—was a curiosity, largely off my radar screen except when I happened to be studying history. I had been to Catholic masses a number of times with friends and acquaintances, and I had deep respect for Catholicism’s adherence to traditional Christian morality, but I had precious little interest in what went on at the Vatican. From my predominantly-UMC religious background, I didn’t think we needed a rigid, formal hierarchy or a single ‘head’ of the church on earth. I was deeply invested in the UMC’s democratic polity, and believed that good, faithful Christians working together could handle making doctrine all on their own (with, of course, some guidance from the Holy Spirit).
What I failed to understand at the time, but came to realize later, is that majority-rule religion results in doctrines that change with the whims of the time. But if we are talking about a real God, and if we are talking about his real laws, they must be transcendent. They aren’t going to be different from century to century, let-alone from decade to decade. Truth is truth. Falsehood is falsehood. A majority vote at a UMC General Conference might change the church’s official position on some aspect of the moral law, but it can’t actually change the moral law itself.
If we are trying to find a religion that reflects divine reality, doctrinal consistency over time and space will be one of its hallmarks (even if the leaders of that religion too often fall woefully short of those doctrines in practice). In other words, the faiths that find themselves ridiculed for their inflexibility, intransigence, and ‘antiquated’ views are more likely to be hewing close to the truth than those that continually redefine right and wrong to fit what is popular at the time. The faiths that share the same beliefs and practices in unity around the world are more likely to be on the right track than those with drastic differences from place to place.
When I was born, Blessed John Paul II had already been the Bishop of Rome (Pope) for just over four years. He served until his death on April 2, 2005, which occurred near the height of my dedicated participation in the United Methodist Church. So I watched the conclave process and the election of Pope Benedict XVI—the first papal election of my lifetime—as an interesting historical event, rather than as something with any particular religious meaning to me. I was also just a month or two away from getting married, so I had plenty of other things on my mind.
Then, as now, the secular media attempted to fan flames of discontent . . . to try to convince the world that the College of Cardinals must elect some great reformer who would ‘bring the church into the modern era’ by casting off her many well-established moral doctrines. Then, as now, they failed to understand how the church works. Established moral doctrine is simply not up for debate. There may be room for discussion about the way we apply a doctrine to a new circumstance, but that is all. The next pope will not ordain women to the clerical priesthood, or soften the church’s teaching on the right to life, or redefine the Sacrament of Matrimony as it has been understood by the faithful since antiquity. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. These things are settled law.
Pope Benedict XVI’s faithfulness to history—his constant demonstration of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal consistency and continuity—reflects the timelessness and oneness of the faith. This unity across time and space played a large role in my decision to become a Catholic in 2009. The moral truths that the church teaches today are the same moral truths she has taught all through the centuries all around the world, and those same truths will still be taught for centuries to come, no matter how popular or unpopular they are at any given time or place. For his constant fidelity to these truths, I offer my deepest thanks to Pope Benedict XVI.
Although he has been the second Roman Pontiff of my life time, Pope Benedict XVI has been the Bishop of Rome throughout my entire life as a Catholic in full communion . . . so I have a particular affinity for him, and I probably always will. His influence on the church during this slice of history has had a direct impact on my own faith journey home to the Catholic Church, and on my ongoing sacramental life in the years since. Without his steadfastness, his faithfulness to the objective truths of the Christian religion, I might not have found my way across the Tiber to “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
So as the Holy Father retires from the papacy, the first Roman Pontiff to do so in six hundred years, I offer my prayers for his health, and I thank him for his tireless service. Gratias tibi ago, Papa Benedictus XVI.
Almighty and everlasting God, have mercy on your servant Pope Benedict XVI, our Supreme Pontiff, and direct him, according to your loving kindness, in the way of eternal salvation, that with your help he may ever desire that which is pleasing to you and accomplish it with all his strength. Through Christ our lord. Amen.