by Ethan Mack
Have you ever considered what must go through a cardinal’s mind at the moment he realizes he will be elected pope? Ok, you probably haven’t, but I’m a Catholic nerd, so roll with it. All of his life, he has been able to appeal to authority when he needed to. Initially, that authority came most immediately in the form of a priest, and later, after he became one himself, in the form of a bishop. And even much later when he became a bishop, there was still a pope. He could always depend upon on the universal authority of the pope. That is, until this moment when he begins to understand that the pope will from henceforth be himself. It’s the point when he realizes there is no longer any earthly authority to appeal to. I honestly don’t know how any man could experience this moment apart from a feeling of utter and pure terror.
There is, I think, a parallel between becoming elected pope and becoming an undergraduate senior (Ok it’s a stretch, but again please roll with it). Senior year can have its own similar crisis of authority and it is apparent in several aspects of college life. Many of us now find ourselves in the positions of leadership for organizations that we can remember joining as freshmen. Also, where we once relied on our upperclassman friends to host social gatherings, we now take it upon ourselves to be the hosts. We are also often sought out when younger friends of ours need advice on what classes to take or what professors to avoid. We have become the authority, and thus we have lost the ability to appeal to it. With our new rights and privileges come new duties and responsibilities. And just like with the papabile cardinal, this can cause a great deal of anxiety and fear.
Having an external authority gives us comfort in the face our own imperfection and ignorance. When we are thrust into the role of that authority, that comfort can dissipate. The fear is that left to our own devices, we will be doomed to failure by our various imperfections. This temptation, and it certainly is a temptation, must be countered in the most effective way any fear is countered: by faith. Through faith we realize that all anxiety is unreasonable since the ultimate object of fear (death) was conquered by Christ on the cross. Faith entails confidence in the fact that God will bestow on us the grace to get through any ordeal we encounter. As our Lord says, “I say to you, do not be worried about your life…Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).
This fear of authority is ultimately a fear of loneliness. We can feel quite alone when people look to us to for guidance and assurance. But, through faith in Christ we come to understand that we are never alone, and knowing that makes even the greatest challenge suddenly seem trivial.