Meeting the Pope at AnCon (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt IV)

Last we spoke, I was in my pyjamas wrestling with sola fide, the doctrine that we are saved by faith alone.

Before that, I was losing sleep over theories of predestination, sola scriptura and most of all, Hell.

And before that, I was just in tears.

But finally, by the middle of the year, as it got colder, things starter looking brighter for me and God. I felt like we’d turned a corner. I didn’t know what to do about Hell and I had plenty of questions about, well, everything – but for the first time in months, I knew a joy and peace in simply being with God.

Isaac Levitan, Above the Eternal Peace, 1894 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

So when an opportunity to go to my university’s week-long Annual Conference came up, I jumped on it. Although I wasn’t at uni, I had every intention of going back next year and since my faculty needed Bible study leaders, I thought, why not? AnCon (as we called it) had always been the highlight of my year.

I vividly remembered my first one. It was 2008, World Youth Day was in Sydney and the Pope was coming to visit. AnCon was on Justification. Yes, good ole Protestant Justification by Faith Alone, along with a brief overview of the glories of the Reformation, just in case anyone was confused where we stood.

But 2012 was another year, there was no Pope on the horizon and the topic for that year was… the church.

Everything we talked about was brilliant and I fell in love all over again with the biblical vision of the ekklesia, the New Covenant People of God, the Bride and Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit; a people united by Christ, set apart in holiness and sent out to serve. It was heady stuff and the vision was captivating.

With such a focus on the Church, you’d think this would be a decisive turning point in my journey to the Catholic Church, the church that claims to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. And it was – but not because I discovered any dazzling ecclesiological theory but because at AnCon 2012, I met my first seriously Catholic Catholics.

Their names were Monica and John-Paul. Yes, John-Paul. (How great is that!) Even better, his friend who I would meet the next day and who would become something of a mother to me in my journey into the Catholic Church was Monica. Now, I’m not saying that makes me a modern-day Augustine… (But you have to admit, the resemblance is striking. He is an intellectual giant, one of the greatest minds – ever – who forever changed Christianity and just casually invented a brand-new literary genre on the side. And me? I blog occasionally. Uncanny, I tell you.)

We got talking. (Ok, I barged into a conversation they were already having with someone else. Whatever.) Anyway, soon we were debating the merits and truths of Catholicism over a half-cooked meal of meat, two vege and crunchy rice.

I had to admit, I was impressed. Here were two Catholics who clearly loved Jesus and knew the Bible. They were Christians in a way that I wasn’t used to seeing Catholics be. I was also impressed that they were willing to come to AnCon, to immerse themselves in the midst of 600-odd pumped-up Protestant ready and eager to convert them.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Pilgrims Meet the Pope, 1492 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

From the way things have been going, you’d think that I was already crypto-Catholic. I mean, I already doubted sola scriptura and sola fide, the two pillars of the Reformation and now I’m impressed by Catholics!  If I was my old Protestant self reading this, I’d think: girl, that ship is sunk and she ain’t coming back. It’s just all downhill from here.

But I think that profoundly misunderstands the ability of Protestantism to be pretty much anything we want it be – as long as it’s not “Catholic.”

I might have been able to see merits in another Christian church and I might have been moving away from Calvinism but that didn’t make me any less Protestant. In fact, it downright annoyed me that these Catholics had the audacity to say there was One True Church, not many, many vaguely amorphous churches shifting in incarnational impulses to represent Christ, some as Anglican, some as Pentecostal, some as Baptist, some as Reformed, some as Orthodox, and some whatever-ya-feel-like.

I believed there was one Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ, but all this Captial-C Church stuff? That just wasn’t very nice.

But do you know what else wasn’t nice at all? Being shown-up on Scripture by the one group of Christians any self-respecting Protestant should feel quite comfortable trouncing: Catholics. Everyone knew Catholics didn’t know the Bible. That was our territory. That’s how the Reformation happened. So why couldn’t they keep their papist paws off my Bible?

We we’re looking at Matthew 16 (ah yes, the gospel of Matthew – the bane of all my attempts to remain comfortably Protestant), where according to Catholics, Jesus “invests” Peter with the office of papacy. Jesus asks His disciples who do they say He is?

“Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:15-19)

Our speaker made much of this passage being in the context of establishing Jesus’ messianic identity and that maybe, we “follow” Peter in declaring Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Who could argue with that?

But surely there was more going on here? It seemed an awfully complicated way for Jesus to say, “Good job, Peter! Everyone else get that? I’m the Messiah. Judas… are you writing that down?”

What was all the stuff about rocks and keys and binding and loosing?

Although I didn’t know what this passage meant, like every other Protestant, I knew what it didn’t mean. It didn’t the papacy.

Giuseppe Nogari, Peter the Apostle, 1743 (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden)

But of course, that’s exactly what Monica and John-Paul argued. They said that in this passage, Jesus was investing Petros (or Kepha in Aramaic, which means rock), with the keys of the Kingdom of God (i.e. the Church) and establishing the office of the papacy as the Church’s visible head, the rock on which the Church would be built.

Although some Protestants stressed that Christ would build his church on the petra (rock), not the petros (rocky/small rock) which he called Peter, they pointed out that Jesus would have spoken Aramiac, where both words are simply cepha. Plus, that linguistic distinction between petra and petros had all but disappeared by this time. Double plus, Luke couldn’t have written Peter’s name as Petra because that’s feminine… and not being a teenager, Luke didn’t think it hilarious to give an Apostle of the Lord a girl’s name. (Personally, I think it’s a mighty shame.)

Then John-Paul asked what we made of the connection between Matthew 16 and Isaiah 22. My response, like many Protestants I imagine, was, “huh?” To be honest, I hadn’t a clue what was in Isaiah 22.

It turns out Isaiah 22 recounts the replacement of Eliakim as steward over the palace under King Hezekiah’s reign, the one in charge of the day-to-day administrative running of the kingdom. (Throughout history, that role has been the most important office after the King. The rough equivalent today would be a Prime Minister.) Dismissing the former steward Shebna, God says,

“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Isa 22:20-22)

Well, that was unexpected… I had to admit, there was something to Jesus’ “investiture” of Peter; it wasn’t just the keys, it was the opening and shutting, the binding and loosing. And it wasn’t just a personal privilege for Peter either; keys were a symbol of an office and an office continued no matter who was in it. Worse, God says Eliakim will be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.” (v. 21)

What if… in the New Israel, Jesus was the Christ, the anointed Davidic King-Messiah just as Peter declared him to be and Peter was… his steward of sorts, the one charged with the day-to-day administrative running of the Church after Christ ascended into Heaven?

That certainly fit with the historical evidence for Peter’s undisputed role as leader of the disciples. And what if that role, the office of the Keys, was supposed to be passed on to Peter’s successor, just like all offices did? And what if someone who would also be a “father”, with the power to bind and loose by forgiving sins through Jesus’ authority? But that would make the pope really Peter’s successor, just as Catholics claimed! And then with a shudder, I realised that the word “pope” came from the Latin papa, meaning father.

Francesco del Cossa, St Peter, 1473 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

It was the first time that it occurred to me that Catholics might have good reasons, good biblically based, exegetically sound reasons, for what they believed. The thought that Catholics might have an edge on us Protestants when it came to Scripture, and particularly in letting Scripture interpret Scripture, was just plain unpleasant.

But there was more going on here… There had to be. You couldn’t just get the papacy from the Bible Alone, even if there was some solid evidence for the primacy and authority of Peter. You needed Tradition too to make the papacy work. There were far too many answered questions otherwise.

And that was clearly where they were going wrong. They followed Tradition and believed it was just as authoritative as Scripture. They made the traditions of men equal with the Word of God, just like Jesus said of the Pharisees!

Well, nice Catholics or not, that was just not on.

To be continued… tomorrow!


11 responses to “Meeting the Pope at AnCon (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt IV)

  1. “But I think that profoundly misunderstands the ability of Protestantism to be pretty much anything we want it be – as long as it’s not ‘Catholic.'”

    Quite true, and well-said 🙂

  2. I hope you don’t mind my saying…
    There’s just something about searching Protestants who find themselves in the arms of the Church. These stories, just like yours, give me goosebumps every time.
    Excited to read about the rest of your journey, and if I could give you a hug welcoming you into the Church (welcome home, sister!), I certainly would.
    God bless you, Laura 🙂

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  5. I get a little hot, sorry, but I have listened to about 600-700 protestant pastors preach and it was always the words of Paul which was the sole core of the preaching. If there was a conflict between the words of Christ and Paul then Paul won out. The protestant theology is based on Paul whereas the Theology in the Catholic church is based on what was handed down by the apostles, the bishops and scripture. The readings are a full meal, the protestant pastors only feed their flock with what agrees with the stomach of the shepherd not with what the sheep need. If you read an Agatha Christe novel like protestants read the Bible, a sentence pulled from here and then another from somewhere else, all ways out of context to prove the reader beliefs, you would never figure who killed who or why, or even if the book had a plot.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about how Protestants focus so heavily on Paul’s writing, almost to the exclusion of the gospels, even when trying to explicate the ‘Gospel’ itself. 🙂

  6. Hey Laura,
    I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, and it re-emerged in my consciousness on the weekend in my fellowship group at church. We’ve been reading the letters to the churches in Revelation, and we came to Rev 3:7 on Sunday:

    “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”

    Taking the connection between Matt 16 and Isaiah 22, it’s really quite interesting who holds the keys in Revelation. Jesus has his keys back, with no reference to anyone else having the authority the keys bring.

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