My pope

Pope John Paul II

Blessed Pope John Paul II.

John Paul II was the first pope I ever knew. I don’t remember when I first became aware of him — he was just always there, on the news, in the media. Not being Catholic, not having any Catholic friends, I never felt he had a direct impact on my life. But as I grew older, I watched him travel widely. I saw his witness, how he reached out to Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Christians of all stripes. As I began to seek, he was there to welcome. And I grew to love this man, this servant of God, who was so full of love for all humanity.

By my twenties, I had come to see Pope John Paul as a loving, wise, grandfatherly figure, a spiritual father to all Christendom and all the world. He began to grow old and feeble as my own beloved grandfather grew old and feeble. My heart ached to see him stumble and fall, to see him weaken, yet continue on his mission.

As I developed as an historian, and studied the history of the Church, I became fascinated with the popes, these leaders who claimed their mandate and descent from the Apostle Peter. I remember getting carried away for hours on Wikipedia, going down through the ages of the papacy. I am by nature drawn to lists. Lists, the putting of items into order, give me a sense of order and coherence. As a young teenager and fan of the space program, I memorized the missions and crews of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and the first half dozen Space Shuttle missions. At sixteen, I became enthralled by genealogy, and quickly committed a complex web of names and dates, ancestors and descendants and family relationships, to memory. And in my twenties, I was captured by yet another list: the popes of Rome.

In 2005, as Pope John Paul entered his final days on this earth, I was planning a trip to Rome with a school group. I had looked forward to seeing the pope, but then, at the beginning of April, just weeks before we were to go, the pope’s health took a turn for the worse. He was dying. During those final hours, I felt a heaviness I’ve only felt a few times since, in the final hours of close loved ones. The night before he died, I joined the world in their deathwatch, staying up on the couch and falling asleep in front of the TV, so that I would not miss the moment if it came.

Tomb of John Paul II

Pope John Paul II's tomb in the Vatican Grottoes. I took this photo a few weeks after his death. (Since his beatification, his tomb has been moved to the floor of the basilica.)

He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, after a papacy of twenty-six years. I felt a profound sadness, watching the mourners in St. Peter’s Square, and hearing the bells toll. That night I wrote in my blog:

Pope John Paul II died today.

I am not Catholic, so I do not feel the same profound sense of loss that many of you may feel. But I know that he was a great man, who served God and God’s children, and did a lot of good in this world. And I admire him for that, and I am saddened by his passing.

Requiescat in pace, Serve Servorum Dei.

I watched with equally rapt attention as the papal conclave began on 18 April. Not only was I watching history unfolding, but I realized that if the conclave ran long, it might impact my group’s ability to tour the Vatican and see the Sistine Chapel. (But wouldn’t that be an exciting time to be in Rome!) Thankfully, it only lasted about a day. The result was the election of Pope Benedict XVI, whom I would also come to cherish in the years to come.

But I will always feel that John Paul II was “my pope.” Even though I was not Catholic, even though I had no real claim to him, I admired him greatly and found in him a spiritual father, a light on the horizon, at a time when I was first beginning to earnestly seek. My love for John Paul has played no small part in my journey to the Church.

Bishops and Priests

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Some years ago, for an English history course as an undergrad, I wrote a paper on the Protestant Reformer and early translator of the Bible into English, William Tyndale. Now, I’ve always had a tendency to become absorbed with the subjects of my papers, and to find in them great heroes. Tyndale was no exception. I still admire the man for his erudition as a scholar, his creativity as a wordsmith, and his zeal for the Word of God. According to his most recent biographer David Daniell, at the time he translated the Bible in the early sixteenth century, he was perhaps one of the only men in all of England who knew the Hebrew language (Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, 287). I was convinced at the time I wrote the paper that the Catholic Church had become corrupted, and my paper reflects an anti-Catholic sentiment (my word, I didn’t realize how anti-Catholic until re-reading it just now). In retrospect, I realize I had absorbed a lot of that bias from Daniell, and from the indignation of Tyndale himself. Certainly, elements of the Church then were corrupt; the Church, without a doubt, needed to be reformed. I maintain that the Church was wrong to oppose the translation of the Bible, and wrong to persecute Tyndale, who first sought the Church’s permission to translate, for the sake of humanistic learning and ecclesiastical reform, and only violently opposed the Church after his work was rejected and condemned.

Already, in the five years since I wrote this paper, I can see how much my historical consciousness has deepened; how simplistic and one-sided my interpretations were. There was so much intricacy of ecclesiastical and state politics, personal zeal and personal fears, involved in the Reformation, and a lot of decisions handled very badly by a lot of people. I am so tempted to pursue more research into this. (::sigh:: I have far too many interests.) But all of this reminiscence is meant to preface the topic I really wanted to talk about: the Greek New Testament, and specifically the words ἐπίσκοπος, πρεσβύτερος, and διάκονος (bishop, elder, and deacon).

I was recently struck by a Mass reading of 1 Timothy 3, which gives requirements for church offices, in which ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) was translated “bishop”: “A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money” (1 Tim 3:2-3, New American Bible). I don’t know why I should have been surprised. Most recent evangelical Bible translations — the ones with which I’m most familiar in my personal study, the New International Version and recently the English Standard Version — translate ἐπίσκοπος “overseer”; but now I realize, in studying for this post, that the ubiquitous King James Version, John Wycliffe’s translation, and even Tyndale himself all translated the word “bishop.” Literally the Greek word is ἐπι + σκοπος — epi (upon, over) + skopos (looker, watcher; see the cognate “scope”) — one who watches over the church; an overseer — which is exactly what the bishop did, and does. By way of the Latin episcopus, it is the origin of our word bishop (still visible in our word episcopal). Anyway, if I were more literate in the tradition of early Protestant translation, I shouldn’t have been taken aback by the Catholic rendering. The ESV still gives “bishop” as an alternate reading in a footnote. The word “bishop” is so closely tied to the concept of “overseeing” that even Tyndale had no problem with it.

Where Tyndale got himself into hotter water was in the translation of πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as “senior.” Here, too, I needed to do more studying, for I’ve learned some things tonight. Traditionally, I argued in my Tyndale paper, the Catholic Church translated the word “priest.” At the time, I considered this quite scandalous, for I knew very well that the Greek word conveys nothing resembling priesthood, but merely an “elder” or “senior”; an older person. But I was perplexed to find, when I checked tonight, that the Douay-Rheims Bible, the first English translation of the Bible authorized by the Catholic Church (the New Testament was published 1582), also translates several instances of πρεσβύτερος in Greek as “ancient” (see 1 Pet 5:1, 2 John 1); so did Wycliffe. Both the Douay-Rheims translators and Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate. So I went back to it. It seems the New Testament of the Vulgate is inconsistent in its translation of πρεσβύτερος into Latin — sometimes, such as the instances I just mentioned, it’s rendered senior (hence “elder” or “ancient”); other times, such as Titus 1:5 and James 5:14, it’s rendered presbyter. Perhaps this is evidence of the seams in St. Jerome’s translation. I’ve read that he didn’t actually spend much time in translating the New Testament, but simply revised an Old Latin translation. I would guess that senior is Jerome’s rendering, being the erudite Greek scholar that he was. Anyway, it’s in translating πρεσβύτερος as “elder” in all of these places (among other translation choices that seemed to call the sacraments into doubt) that Tyndale earned the disapprobation of the Church.

It bothered me that the Church translated πρεσβύτερος or presbyter as “priest” without any seeming reason. In fact, I always wondered — where does the office of priest in the Catholic Church even come from? It’s never mentioned in the New Testament, as far as I understood the Greek. It wasn’t until that Mass reading a few weeks ago that it hit me with a start. Presbyter and priest are cognate. The word priest in English in fact has its origin in the Latin presbyter. The OED confirmed this for me. Priest entered the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language as early as the earliest extant documents in the eighth or ninth century (the Code of King Alfred is cited). The elders of the New Testament Church became what we know in the modern Church as priests.

This is already getting too long — but I’ll just say, in brief, that διάκονος (diakonos) literally means “agent, assistant, servant” — and nobody seems to have ever had any problem translating it “deacon.”

Bishops' CroziersThere’s considerable historical debate, however — and admittedly, this is not a historiography I’ve pursued, though I’d like to — over at what point the office of “overseer” in the early Church became the traditional, familiar, Catholic bishop; the single, chief ruler of a local church. The doctrine is referred to as the monarchical episcopacy or the monoepiscopacy. Liberal scholars (e.g. Bart Ehrman) have argued that it didn’t firmly develop until well into the second century. It appears that in the New Testament, the words ἐπίσκοπος (bishop/overseer) and πρεσβύτερος (elder/priest) are used interchangeably. For example, referring back to 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul gives the requirements for bishops and deacons, but makes no mention of elders. St. Peter, in 1 Peter 5:1, refers to himself as one among the elders of the Church, a “fellow elder.” But the Catholic Church holds that St. Peter was the first bishop of the Church in Rome, and by virtue of that, the first pope. What does it mean for that claim, if “bishops” and “elders” in the New Testament Church seem to be the same thing? Personally, I say not a thing. Even if the Church was slow to develop that there only needed to be one “bishop” in a local church, one “overseer” who was in charge — even if there was more than “overseer” in the beginning — and it’s not at all clear that this was the case — then certainly Peter, being the foremost Apostle (and the only Apostle, evidently, active in that office in Rome, since St. Paul never refers to himself as an “elder” or “overseer”), to whom Christ had entrusted the keys to the kingdom and on whom he said he would build his Church, was the foremost bishop, the one to whom everyone deferred, by virtue of his authority. The primacy and supremacy of Peter stands.

In any case, though Bart Ehrman notes that at the time of 1 Clement (the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers), dated ca. A.D. 95-96, the monoepiscopacy wasn’t in place yet, and the terms “bishop” and “elder” continued to be used synonymously (Ehrman, ed., The Apostolic Fathers Vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003, 22, noting 1 Clement 44), the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written just a few years later, between A.D. 98 and 117, firmly argue to the churches that received them that they should submit to their one bishop. By the beginning of the second century, if not before, the monoepiscopacy was coming into being. Presbyters were becoming what we know as priests. And the Church we know has descended from these men.

The Historical Church

Tonight was the second week of RCIA. There are about thirty inquirers, I would say — I first started trying to jot down their names, then at least count them, and finally stopped at “a lot.” We went around the room and introduced ourselves. The lesson tonight was on “Religion vs. Spirituality,” the difference between the two, the world’s definition and view of religion, and the Catholic answer to it. I spoke up several times to contribute to the discussion or to answer questions; but often I feel that my comments may appear to others that I’m trying to show off my knowledge, and I end up kicking myself.

We were asked to explain what was drawing us to the Catholic Church. I named about three things (though I’m afraid I rambled a bit): the Church’s continuity and connection to history and tradition; the unity and authority of the Church; and the order of Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the peace that it brings. Several other people mentioned being drawn by the Church’s history and the conviction that it is the true and original Church. And that brings me back to where I was a few nights ago, before my train of thought was wrecked: the premises on which I’m undertaking this journey.

After interrogation and reflection, I’m going to revise the first one:

Premise #1: Everyone who calls on the name of Christ, and subscribes to historical, ecumenical creeds of the Church, is a Christian. God, in His mercy and grace, works through many different churches. But not all churches are the same.

I maintain that spiritually, we are all part of Body of Christ — even if one arm, and other various appendages, have gone and hacked themselves off. The Roman Catholic Church, I’ve come to believe, embodies the true Church that Christ founded through His Apostles, in which His Real Presence subsists and ministers.

Second — and I’ve been trying to write this for days:

Premise #2: The Roman Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of history and tradition from Jesus Christ and His Apostles to the present.

The Church’s history, more than anything else, is what has drawn me to the Church; what has lit my way to its threshold. I’ve been fascinated and compelled by it since the very first time I encountered it as a teenager. In college, as a history major, the history of the Church and its saints captured my heart more than almost anything else.

Christianity, the Bible tells us, was founded by Jesus Christ and His Apostles in Jerusalem, in Judaea, ca. A.D. 33. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus entrusted His Church to the Apostle Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). St. Peter, both Catholic and Protestant scholars widely agree, journeyed to Rome and was the first bishop of the Christian church there. Over a period of several centuries, the primacy of the bishops of Rome — their authority over all other bishops — came to be accepted by the rest of Christendom. Today, the bishop of Rome is better known by another title: pope (from Latin papa, a child’s word for “father,” as per English “papa”).

For 1500 years, the Roman Catholic Church was the Church in the West (the Eastern Orthodox Church formally split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054). Across those years shine innumerable saints and heroes of the faith who have captured my love and admiration and inspired my faith. In the Church have been handed down the traditions and beliefs of the Early Church, and of countless believers over the centuries. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation brought about their split from the Catholic Church, they discarded wholesale many, if not most, of these traditions and beliefs. The Reformers went far beyond their original grievances, finally cutting away everything but the Bible itself, leaving sola scriptura (Scripture alone). In so many ways, I feel they threw out the baby with the bathwater — which, it can’t be denied, was befouled and muddied. The Church needed to be reformed. What it didn’t need was to be shattered.

Since the Reformation, with no single, recognized authority, Protestant churches have continued to fragment into literally thousands of separate sects and denominations. Anyone with a complaint or grievance simply breaks away and forms a new church or denomination. Every division and schism marks a further degradation of the Historical Church — a further generation departed from the history and traditions of the Apostles. With each generation, more and more tradition is discarded as irrelevant (though some churches have attempted to reclaim parts of it). My church upbringing marked tradition’s total loss: there was no sense of tradition at all; no sense that anyone or anything had preceded us; no instruction in belief, practice, theology, or doctrine that had been handed down; no mention that we as Christians had any history at all, aside from a few references to Azusa Street, barely expounded upon. I pined for it. I longed for it, before I even knew what I was longing for.

In the Roman Catholic Church, I feel I’ve finally found what I’ve been longing for all my life: a connection to the past, to the continuous, unbroken history and tradition of Christ’s Church on Earth; a connection, always felt but never fully, to all the saints of all the ages. The wealth of tradition, of devotion, of belief, that I’ve been missing all these years, was not lost, but was all right here. I am coming home to that glorious city.