Sheep without a shepherd?
So, the first day since the pope’s stepping down from office is drawing to a close for the world’s Catholics. Most of the media coverage of the resignation, an event unprecedented in the modern age, refers darkly to a crisis in the Church. The resignation of the pope is a grave blow to his flock, we are told. It is likely to shake their faith; a possibility strengthened in Scotland, where our well-liked and only cardinal has just been forced into a sudden resignation after allegations – as yet unproven – of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
I converted to Catholicism last November. The clues have been here to find, but readers who have been with me for a while might be surprised, even amused: I have long protested my doubts and reservations about my husband’s religion. I am a bit surprised and amused myself. They got me in the end!
But how extraordinary to be, in C.S.Lewis’s famous phrase, ‘surprised by joy’. I won’t go into the reasons here: suffice it to say that perhaps, at long last, I stopped asking questions long enough to hear the still, small voice that had been waiting all along to give me the answer. In any case, trying to rationalise such an experience is almost impossible, as I am discovering. Trying to think of reasons to explain the decision to my family – although it felt less like a decision, more like a grace bestowed – I suggested not so long ago that one of the appealing aspects of the Catholic Church is its strong leadership. Like it or not, the Church knows where it’s come from and where it’s going, which is not always the impression given by the hand-wringing Anglican leaders, bless ’em.
Well, that claim of strong leadership seems to ring a little hollow this week. Our diocese has had no bishop for months, the last one having retired owing to failing health. Now we have lost our cardinal and our pope in the same week. Are we, then, as the media insinuate, sheep without shepherds, milling in confusion, turning every one to his own way?
Of course not. It is indeed a troubling time for the global flock: naturally we wonder what the future will hold for the Church, rocked as it has been by crimes and cover-ups, dissension and resignations. What very few commentators seem to have grasped, however, is that the faith of Christians is not founded on any frail mortal; however exalted he might be in the hierarchy of what is referred to, in a beautiful and telling phrase in the liturgy, as God’s ‘pilgrim Church on Earth’. The faith of the faithful is in the transcendent God, in the risen Christ. And thank heavens for that.