We humans really seem to despise being told what to do. I find this ironic, as we experience and submit to authority every day. Hierarchy is embedded in life, hardwired into God’s creation.
In fact, I can’t think of a single thing I do that doesn’t involve some sort of organizational structure. Families, churches, companies, governments, schools, even Little League sports have a chain of command. And I have to look no further than the food chain to see hierarchy and authority functioning out in nature – a system instituted by the Creator.
From a Christian perspective, consider what we ask for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. How is it done in heaven? It’s a hierarchy. Aren’t we literally asking God for a Kingdom every time we recite this prayer?
Growing up in America, under a democratic form of government, I assumed kingdoms should be avoided. Our country was founded by people trying to escape the oppressive rule of a monarchy. Yet, even in our beloved democracy we still recognize the need for some form of hierarchy. Even if we don’t want a bloodline to determine leadership and “we the people” want to decide, someone must be in charge to avoid complete chaos. Our three branch system does not abolish authority, as we still see a President, Congress, and Supreme Court holding us accountable to a certain way of life.
Sounds great on the surface. I’ve always believed God is in charge and I am His servant. Why would authority be any kind of roadblock for me? Because the heartbeat of Jesus led me to His altar and held me there, mesmerized, craving more.
The intense desire for connecting with Jesus in the Eucharist left me standing face-to-face with the authority of the Catholic Church. They simply don’t allow just anyone to partake in communion. I guess I could have marched right up there like I belonged and they may not have stopped me. But breaking rules is not my style, plus a little section from Corinthians was nagging at my conscience.
At first, it made me angry. Who are they to think they can keep people from Jesus with rules and requirements? Hadn’t they read the verses about whoever seeks will find and whoever knocks the door will be opened for them? I was knocking. Jesus opened the door. They ought to let me in.
Or should they? I had already realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about communion. Maybe there was more to this authority part of the story, too. I accept authority and hierarchy in every aspect of life – why was I struggling when it came to the Catholic Church?
Years ago, I would have said I didn’t want to be told how to live my life, especially when it came to religion. But you would have known I was lying by the pile of religious self-help books I was buried under. I had no idea how to live my life, and I was asking everyone except Jesus. So I was left with the real reason I was battling authority – distrust.
The idea that priests considered themselves as standing in for Christ brought concerns about arrogance and reminders of power-hungry Pharisees. I’ve seen the entitlement-fueled viciousness that comes out of the most insignificant board rooms. Honestly, I was nervous that humans couldn’t be trusted with something as significant as God’s authority.
It turns out that isn’t actually my decision to be concerned about. As shocking as this was for my ego, Jesus already entrusted His authority to men without asking me how I felt about it.
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. ~Matthew 16:18-19 (DRA)
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. ~John 20:21-23 (DRA)
Even more ironic was the realization that whether the Church calls the shots or the masses decide on their own how to worship and live, both paths require the participation of humans. My argument that humans could not be trusted to run God’s Church simply disintegrated as my mind flashed back to all the worship decisions I, a mere human, had personally made. By thinking humans could not be trusted, I was instead trusting myself to determine and interpret such deep theological things.
I looked my contradiction in the eye…Seriously? How could I possibly know more than thousands of years of tradition handed down from Jesus through His Apostles? More than priests and pastors that have been through lifetimes of seminary study? I tried to justify it by saying we are all disciples of Christ and only Jesus has authority and He lives in my heart – so my heart had to be capable of leading me in the right direction. But the truth is, I could fill volumes of all the despicable things lurking in my heart.
The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it? ~Jeremiah 17:9 (DRA)
I thought I was defending Jesus’ rightful authority by saying He is the High Priest and no man can represent that. But perhaps I was actually ignoring His right as High Priest to delegate His authority on earth and set up His Church according to His perfect will.
I let humility and truth wash over me as I re-read the books of Acts and Corinthians and Timothy, and witnessed His priests exercising their authority in His name. Performing miracles. Deciding who could be leaders. Resolving disputes over ethical issues. Forgiving sins. Providing interpretation of Scripture. Laying hands on the next priests in line – a line of succession that can be traced all the way through the Catholic Church.
My ego, which I had left firmly planted in the corner for a well-deserved time out, tried to throw out one more argument. What about all the really horrific examples about sinful priests?
And indeed, there have been horrible leaders throughout church history. Humans mess up the most perfect systems all the time. But this cannot be my deal breaker, as Jesus has already shown us how to overcome this issue. He didn’t hand His authority to already-perfect saints. He put His Church in the hands of sinners. If He didn’t, what chance would any of us really have?
I have been watching in disbelief over the past few years as my beloved country’s morals and values slip further away, each new headline shocking me again and again. But poor leadership doesn’t make me want to renounce my citizenship and abandon the system. I want to defend the true system for what its founders meant it to be and elect leaders who will put us back on course.
That loyalty I feel for my country should pale in comparison to the loyalty I feel for my King and His system – the Church.
We don’t abandon Jesus because Peter, handpicked by Christ to be the Rock of the Church, had a moment of weakness and denied Him. We don’t abandon Peter and the whole concept of church because one of his colleagues betrayed Christ. So why would I abandon Jesus’ Church today when His appointed leaders fall into sin? I’m not condoning inappropriate behavior, but I’m also not interested in renouncing my citizenship in Christianity every time the human leaders make mistakes.
The truth is, this system doesn’t deserve less respect because men are running it. It deserves more respect, and even obedience, because God instituted it.
As I got close enough to inspect this roadblock of authority, I soon discovered that the Church wasn’t trying to keep me from communion – they were trying to properly prepare me for the most holy connection to the Divine on this planet. But the most surprising thing I have learned is that submitting to the authority of the Church does not mean I lose my identity as an individual disciple of Christ.
“For all, regenerated in Christ, are made kings by the sign of the cross; they are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood. For what is more king-like than to find yourself ruler over your body after having surrendered your soul to God? And what is more priestly than to promise the Lord a pure conscience and to offer him in love unblemished victims on the altar of one’s heart?” — St. Leo the Great
No, I didn’t lose anything. Taking my rightful place in the Kingdom means I gain firm guidance in truth and access to all the necessary tools for the journey to heaven – Sacraments our Lord asked His shepherds to dispense to the people when He told Peter to “feed My sheep.”
Today, I am completely enamored with the priesthood. I have yet to meet anyone more caring, brave, selfless, intelligent, and humble than the men who diligently lead our little parish. But I won’t pretend to have hopped over this roadblock in the real-time span of a blog post. Fully trusting the priesthood came much later as all the pieces started falling into place together. However, I was able to push it to the side far enough to peek around it. And what I glimpsed beyond this boulder was intriguing.
I could see incredible saints with super-human abilities. Goose-bump inducing prophecies. Modern day miracles. Visions from heaven and hell. Powerful angels. And that was just externally. Internally, the heartbeat of Jesus tells an even greater and incredibly personal and unique story. A story I desperately want to be a part of.
I simply had to consider, “If I did trust the authority of the Church to guide me, how would that affect all the other roadblocks in my path to eternity?”
“Do not be scared of the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. … We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.” — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity