Dear Sister Sunday

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Pope Francis in America

Dear Sister Sunday,
I’m a fan of your Facebook page and a lifelong Lutheran. I’m also a fan of Pope Francis. I watched him live on TV today as his plane landed in the US and he met with Catholic school children on the tarmac. Francis reminds me of the Good Shepherd: always reaching out to the poor and the outcast, and preaching the Good News of the mercy and love of God. But I have to admit, I just don’t get why Catholics think they “need” a pope. Why is a pope necessary? In my opinion, the people of God can get along just fine without some guy in Rome telling them what to think and do.

Dubious in Delaware

Dear Della,

I don’t know if fondness for a choir correlates with your fondness for this pope, but I look forward every year to the St. Olaf Choir Christmas concert. The season just wouldn’t be the same without all those Lutherans singing in four-part harmony. So, thanks for that.

Well, one would think the people of God would get along fine without some guy in Rome telling them what to do, but the numbers suggest otherwise. Estimates vary, from as high as 30,000 to somewhere around 10,000, but the fact is that there are lots of Protestant denominations. Why? Because when our Protestant brothers and sisters can’t agree — on liturgical practices, on questions of who can be ordained or married, on interpretation of Scripture — one group breaks off from another and a new denomination is formed. That’s how, just to name two examples, we got the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of America in 1936 and The North American Lutheran Church in 2010. Both grew out of doctrinal splits within the larger Presbyterian and Lutheran world that were never healed. And that’s not even counting the many nondenominational churches and Bible churches that have sprung up independent of any larger denomination or governing body.

Part of that grows out of the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura, or, scripture alone, as the font of truth. When each Christian, or community of Christians, has the responsibility for interpreting scripture, you’re likely to get different interpretations that reflect, to some degree, the culture, the country, the political system, and even the ages and economic status of those doing the interpretation and teaching.

Jesus prays for unity in the Body of Christ (John 17:22) even as that Body is divided into ever-smaller pieces.

Unity is what the pope, the Bishop of Rome, offers. He represents the Magisterial, or teaching authority, of the Church, an authority that asks the Church, grounded in scripture, standing in prayer, and armed with the wisdom and insight of the saints and scholars of the last two thousand years, to interpret the Word of God, ancient and ever new, for our time and our needs.

Please don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of arguments within the flock — Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism and women’s ordination, anyone? And sometimes the arguments go from spirited to ugly. But we’re all agreed that, even when we don’t like what the pope has to say, he is the first of all bishops, elected to the office St. Peter himself once held, and the buck, as they say, stops with him. It’s a structure that has stood, and continues to stand, the test of time.

It’s a bit like the sacrament of marriage. We often say that our love keeps us vowed and true to one another. But what about when love fails, which it does? What holds us fast? I would argue that the promises keep us as much or more than we keep the promises. We can lean on them, finding strength in the big, old, often unwieldy institution of marriage — those ancient promises, those well-worn words — a strength we might, alone together, have lost.

So, enjoy Pope Francis’ visit. And remember that, if we can agree that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, and Savior, we have come a long way towards the unity for which Christ prayed and for which we all long.

See you in front of the television set,

Sister Sunday