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The Paradox of Peter: Catholics, Remember Why You’re Here

I often relay the anecdote that it was Steven Ray’s book on the papacy, Upon This Rock, that gave me the final intellectual push to convert – but mostly it was the opening quote, which brought me about 90% of the way even before delving into the scholarship within.

“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”

–G.K Chesterton, Heretics

It is no exaggeration to say that this brilliant paragraph from Chesterton brought me to my knees in prayers of gratitude. I knew I was making the right choice before God.

The Catholic Church is the Church that Christ Himself founded upon Peter, the rock. I could give you all kinds of reasons that this is true, all kinds of books and articles written by erudite people, on Scripture and history and everything else. I could have come to the truth by those means. But I didn’t.

Growing up Eastern Orthodox, I understood that it is impossible to avoid suffering. I understood that the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understanding of suffering was unique from  any other belief system in the world, even as I ran from suffering in my own sin and ignorance. But I was missing something bigger, a kind of suffering that I could not fully understand from an Orthodox perspective, a necessary suffering that fell into place in an instant with one simple Chestertonian paragraph.

What greater suffering is there for me as a human being, in my self-aggrandizing view of my own intelligence, than the pain of being forced to accept a paradox as the truth?

The Catholic Church is a grand edifice appearing to rest upon the head of a pin. This has always been the case, all the way back even as Our Lord came to us in the Incarnation. He was a helpless infant; He was the King of Kings. He told us that the first would be last, He told us the weak would be strong, He told us the poor would be rich. He told us to die so that we may live, and He led the way Himself when He died and rose again on the third day.

First Corinthians 14:15 reminds us that “if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

All it would take to destroy Christianity is to prove one simple thing: that a man did not die and then rise again. The world has tried to prove this since the day this most blessed event occurred, cheered on by Satan and his demons.

Yet the risen Christ remains.

Everything we believe and every way in which we worship as Catholics rests upon 2,000 years of an interlocking chain, beginning with an imperfect human man chosen by God to bear the keys to the Kingdom. To knock the wind out of the Catholic claim is to destroy one man, in order to prove Christ a liar.

This man was crucified upside-down, too humble to dare approach the level of his Savior even in the very way he was martyred. A man whose successors have at times been evil, corrupt, incompetent, inviting the Devil’s power to tempt them at the foot of his chair.

Yet the Catholic Church remains.

It’s not because the Catholic Church has run from seemingly impossible paradoxes, but because she has stood steadfast in the midst of them. The Bride of Christ perfectly mirrors the paradoxical life of Christ. There is no seeming contradiction that she fears, no point at which she backs away from the cliffside for fear of tumbling into the abyss. She does not change her ecclesiology to make it easier to bear the stupidity of her hierarchs. She faces every impossible question with the impossible courage that comes only from being truly a fool for Christ.

The Catholic Church is not solely a Divine institution. It is also a human institution. And the human element of the Church is being tempted like never before to take refuge on what appears to be safer ground.

The Catholic Church is a confident religion that has been infected with self-doubt, as Pope Pius XII as Cardinal Pacelli presciently noted in 1933. “A day will come when the civilized world will deny its God, when the Church will doubt as Peter doubted. She will be tempted to believe that man has become God, that His Son is only a symbol, a philosophy like so many others.”

How can we hold fast when so many of our own shepherds do not believe that Christ is the only path to Salvation? When our pope is trying to foist a “synodal Church” upon us? When the windows to the world have been opened, the noxious air suffocating us little by little, as parishes close and vocations in the mainstream Church collapse?

There are a million arguments, especially in these times, to reject the Catholic Church’s claim to being the one Our Lord founded. Good arguments. Tempting arguments.

In the Catholic faith, we find the only answer that holds fast in the midst of all of them: “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The words of our Savior are clear. He founded one Church, upon one man, and I rest at peace within it. I have made the right choice. I still fear suffering in my weakness, but He is with me in the impossible, and nothing on Earth or in Hell can snatch me from His hand.

We do not do what the Protestants have done and start our own ecclesial communities, clinging only to a book that has no authority without the true Church they have left behind. We do not do what the Eastern Orthodox have done and do away with Peter because Peter seems awfully comfortable with dabbling in destruction.

We do not lean on our own understanding, seeking safer ground for our intellect as though that will save us. We remain Catholic, for it is the faith of little children that will lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven. We suffer in this uniquely human way, carrying our everyday crosses along the edge of the abyss, so burdened that a puff of air could upset our balance.

We don’t avoid the suffering of paradox, nor do we pretend it doesn’t exist. We stand on the edge of a knife. We rejoice on the head of a pin.

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