It was Wednesday and the speeding train was taking me to meet my sister in Bethesda, Maryland where she lives. On Thursday we would join 46,000 Catholics at Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C. to attend Mass with the Holy Father. Seated on the train for more than two hours, there was not one smile. Few people spoke to those near them. Sharply dressed business men and women talked distractedly on cell phones, read their newspapers, viewed their text messages on cell phones or their e-mails on laptops.
As we exited the train for the DC Metro, the Metro track area was desolate. After finding a train to take me to Bethesda, it seemed that each car was almost empty save at least one slumped man looking angry. Conntemplating the bodily harm an angry young man might inflict, I kept looking from car to car for one that seemed safe. Finally finding an anger-free car, I stepped in to face a young man looking sad. He stared straight ahead with a blank and defeated look in his eyes. It seemed that emptiness was everywhere. After a steep escalator ride to exit the Metro station, my smiling sister stood waiting.
That night, neither my sister nor I could sleep. Even my sister’s cats sensed that something was up. They spent the night walking over not just everything in the house, but everyone—including me.
The next morning, we headed for the Bethesda Metro station and joined a crowd that was by the minute multiplying in number and jubilation. In sharp contrast to the train rides of the day before, now everyone was smiling. I found myself swept along by a growing sea of folks who were bursting with a contagious joy. Once on the train, we stood, packed like sardines, holding the safety handles above our heads. The train grew more and more crowded with each successive stop. And with each successive stop, the happy chatter, the laugher and the smiles grew too.
We were on a journey with people who knew who they were and where they were going. We were uniquely united: young and old, couples and singles, small children and young adults. To look from the outside at the joviality of it all, one might have thought we were long lost relatives heading for our family’s annual reunion. In truth, we were indeed brothers and sisters because we all had the same Holy Father. Our Lord had united us through Peter’s successor.
The Holy Father is our source of unity in the Church. “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and whole company of the faithful,” says the Catechism in Section 882.
Because our Holy Father is our source of unity in the Church, if we want unity in the Church then we need first to unite with him. When we go off into the sunset away from the teachings of the Church, and toward our own novel ideas, we separate ourselves from that unity. We may believe we are heading off in the name of some noble or lofty goal. We may even believe one can act lovingly toward God and others while simultaneously defying the teachings of our Holy Father and our Church. But one cannot.
The Holy Father is a responsible Father, just as our Holy Mother Church is a responsible mother. As parents, we don’t let our children do whatever they “feel” like doing. We warn them and guide them. It starts when the children are toddlers. “Don’t touch the fire. It is hot and it will burn you.” “Don’t run into the street. The cars will hurt you…” It moves onto “Please study hard. It is important.” “Stay away from drugs….” Good parents don’t say: “Oh Schnookums, I love you and everything you do whether good or bad… SMOOOCH.” Good parents say “I love you but not what you are doing.” Good parents hug. But they also exhort, admonish, warn, and protect.
It was easy to cheer for the Holy Father while he was here. Now we will be tested. Can we stand behind him when he is off in Rome? At his last homily our Holy Father talked about how obedience is now unpopular. None of us wants anyone, let alone the church or the Holy Father himself telling us what to do. If we really want to show our love for God and for our Holy Father, we can embrace that now unpopular obedience to our Church. We can study and embrace her 2,000 years of wisdom. We can continue to unite under our Holy Father, thus enabling him to be the true source and foundation of unity God created him to be. Only through this obedience will Christ’s prayer for the Church be answered: “I pray… that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us…” (John 17:21).