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The Papacy of All Believers: A Mennonite Look at the Holy See

A Mennonite who is also deeply indebted to Catholic influence finds himself reflecting these days on Church, the papacy and an interesting 500 years since his forebears fled 'Catholic officialdom.'

Saint Peter (1610-14) by El Greco.
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial 


I am the spiritual descendent
of iconoclasts who religiously rejected the papacy and the structures it crowns. So while I found the Papal pageantry captivating (and then disappointing) it also seemed somewhat beside the ecclesiological point.

As a Mennonite who is also deeply indebted to Catholic influence, I find myself reflecting these days on Church, the papacy and an interesting 500 years since my forebears fled Catholic officialdom and established their version of the priesthood of all believers.

My respect for the priests I know equals my respect for the early Reformers.
All the Roman pomp has renewed my appreciation for the simplified concept of priesthood I experienced growing up in rural Menno-land. Yet I am drawn to Catholic monasteries, I have icons in my apartment and my respect for the priests I know equals my respect for the early Reformers.

'Particular attention'

I envy the denominational drama of red-robed Cardinals locked up with Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (especially when the most drama we Mennonites can muster is a lively quilt auction—no debugging equipment required). The stature of Catholic tradition is impressive.

With such a sweeping accumulation of tradition, a church is bound to accrue some of the very best of the Christian tradition—mystics, monasticism, abundant ritual and a relatively catholic nature—as well as the opposite(you can fill this one in yourself). Strength and weakness dwell so close.

This is what I remind myself when I feel caught between my attraction to Catholicism and my dilemmas with it. This is therefore what I reminded myself upon visiting the Holy See website after hearing the sad news of the Pope's death. The first text I came across read:

The Shepherd of the Lord's whole flock is the Bishop of the Church of Rome, where the Blessed Apostle Peter, by sovereign disposition of divine Providence, offered to Christ the supreme witness of martyrdom by the shedding of his blood. It is therefore understandable that the lawful apostolic succession in this See, with which 'because of its great pre-eminence every Church must agree', has always been the object of particular attention.

I envy the denominational drama of red-robed Cardinals locked up with Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
It's too easy to critique a statement of such grandiose proportions. From the standpoint of ecumenism, it critiques itself. In some sense, my forebears were reacting to just this sort of message and posture. (Of course, the Catholics I know and read rarely speak in terms of "sovereign disposition" or "great pre-eminence".)

Though the pontifical tone grates, I am altogether taken by the notion of a single, overall pastor of a faith group; someone of earned respect and broad authority whose task it is to see the big picture and respond in a pastoral manner. Mennonites and many Protestants suffer the lack of such a figure. Much could also be said for a ritualized geographic center of church life. This cohesion in space and ceremony we also lack.

Putting the Rome in Roman Catholic

While I view the drama, and read Vatican.va through a Reformation lens, the Eastern Orthodox perspective is even more instructive.

To simplify, for a thousand years, several "sees" of church authority ("patriarchates") operated collectively within a single Church. The patriarchates were ranked. While Rome was considered the "first among equals" this did not give it authority over other jurisdictions. But where there is ranking there is jostling for position. Eventually, Rome's insistence on being the supreme authority led to mutual excommunication between bishops of Rome and second-ranked Constantinople in 1054. Thus the church was split between Orthodox and Roman. Rome asserted the primacy and "great pre-eminence" of the Roman See, the basis of papal authority.

I feel caught between my attraction to Catholicism and my dilemmas with it.
Or at least this is how a sampling of Eastern historians tell it. Also in the mix was a dispute about whether the "Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father" or "from the Father and from the Son". (Admittedly, Mennonite and Protestant churches have split over issues that, in retrospect, seem equally inconsequential.)

So amidst discussion of the merits and faults of the new pope, I contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of the papacy itself and the alternatives to a top-heavy arrangement of the flock. Beyond questions of right and wrong is a moment in history at which to learn from strengths and weaknesses in all camps.

Simplified priesthood

I understand the priesthood of all believers to be—and I rely on my practical understanding rather than doctrinal dictatesthe notion that we all administer, embody and mediate the presence of God to one another. The great mystical privilege and responsibility of the priestly role is decentralized. The gatekeeper function is eliminated. It is church of the people, for the people and by the people (though hopefully the church also supercedes democracy).

Sometimes I wish the Reformers wouldn't have thrown the proverbial baby out with the hierarchical bathwater.
But strength and weakness are never far apart. Many Catholics I'm sure would find the practice of this decentralized priesthood somewhat mundane and devoid of reverence or ritual. Some non-Catholics would agree. Yet the trappings of the Vatican—which make it look too much like an enclave of powerincrease my sympathies for my forebears, many of whom had been priests.

But sometimes I wish the Reformers wouldn't have thrown the proverbial baby out with the hierarchical bathwater. But so swings the reactionary pendulum of history; not unlike the vacillation in my personal navigation of ecumenism. One week I'm discovering new respect for an old Pope, the next week I can't believe the "Princes of the Church" are sequestered in ancient opulence when they might do better to couch their decisions in a Central American slum.

I live with the vacillation, resisting judgment and looking for redemption as I stumble along the short path of grace between Mennonitism and Catholicism, weakness and strength.

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June 10, 2005

WILL BRAUN is editor of Geez Magazine. He writes from Winnipeg, Canada, and can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on geezmagazine.org, April 26, 2005. Repinted with permission. © 2005, Geez Magazine. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
06.15.05   TonyC says:
I enjoyed reading this article, and as a Catholic, my understanding of tradition is a little different from that of Will Braun's. Most people see the mix of Tradition and trappings -enmeshed as they often are- as one reality. As I understand it, the continuous preaching of the apostolic Church from the time of the Apostles onward constitutes Tradition for Catholicism. Tradition thus understood and Scripture constitute the two pillars of the Catholic faith. Too bad it took until Vatican II (Dei Verbum) for us to really get that one nailed down, and too bad so few Catholics really understand it. Instead, we become so hooked on trappings that we fail to see the beauty of the continuous living Tradition, which in reality is so deeply linked to Scripture, which as the Council said, must be the "soul of theology." I wonder if Braun's "vacillation" with Catholicism lies in his difficulty with some of the excesses of its trappings which can lead one to question: "What does this have to do with the Gospel of Jesus?" I suppose that for now all of us -Catholics and other Christians- must learn to listen to one another and to dialogue with honesty as Braun and this website (in hosting his article) have done. I think back to Pope John Paul II's remark in his 1983 encyclical "On Concern for the Social Order" on how the Churches in the West need to divest themselves of their riches and share with those in the developing world who struggle with much less. Perhaps in the poverty of Christ, freed from the trappings that tend to accrue with priviledge and power, all Christians might find greater openness to share their spiritual riches and to a closer fulfillment of Christ's prayer "...that all might be one." TonyC

06.15.05   brodbmx says:
I so deeply understand the tradition that this author is writing from, as I have vacilated in this same area for ten years now. However, several issues raised by the author need to be addressed. First, by admitting that he has a traditional perspective, he admits that it is impossible to approach Christianity apart from tradition. We all read certain verses with a certain bent that cannot be ignored. So, at least for me, what must be asked is this: on what is my tradition based? If the Roman Catholic Church messed up the handed down teaching of the apostles for 1500 years, what could possibly make me think that a new group of thinkers called "reformers" could suddenly get it right? Why would I trust their "traditional" interpretations more than any others?Next, I understand Mr. Braun being put off by the claims of the Papacy. But, to go straight to the point, has true Christian unity ever existed apart from Rome? For me, that is the final question. Christ demanded (and promised) unity amoung His followers. Where can we find unity? True, it is not always pretty or perfect, but communion with Rome has been the only continuing form of Christian unity in history.

06.10.05   Godspy says:
A Mennonite who is also deeply indebted to Catholic influence finds himself reflecting these days on Church, the papacy and an interesting 500 years since his forebears fled 'Catholic officialdom.'

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