Along the Watchtower: Meditating on Bob Dylan and Pope Francis

Seconds after the “white-smoke alert” was sent, people who couldn’t or didn’t want to rush to the Vatican poured instead into the “Twitter Square.” As posts flooded the site, I couldn’t help thinking of these words from Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”:

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.

It was Fr. Robert Barron, the rector of the largest seminary in the United States and director of the New Evangeliziation, who got me listening to Dylan. The lyrics above describe perfectly the cacophony of sentiments expressed as the world waited to meet the new pope.

Many of us here feel life is but a joke.

There were the usual, tired Catholic-bashing Tweets. There were also honest, tragically justified condemnations of heinous human acts hidden under the cloak of religion badly lived. Women, angry the pope was not female, joined others who, like Piers Morgan, parasitically used the news to wave their arms for attention.

Genuinely sad, annoying, often understandable. And yet… they were there waiting too; instinctively grasping that beyond their cynicism, the Catholic pope is more than a punchline; somehow above the crime of being male, not truly synonymous with sex scandals.

But you and me, we’ve been through all that and this is not our fate.

There were those who understood that “this is not our fate”; that our lives are not a joke and the man about to emerge on the balcony, watched in person by over 100,000 in St. Peter’s Square and billions by media, is somehow the living symbol of the deep meaning of human life.

There are as many paths to this conclusion as individual souls. Eight years ago when Pope Benedict became the man in white, I believed that the entire Catholic Church had more or less eschewed Her role as guardian of the deposit of faith. I lived in a twisted universe where I believed the pope and the entire Roman Catholic Church had abandoned the faith at the time of Vatican II and were actively pursuing a plan to advance a global, Judeo-Masonic world government and a universal religion of man.

Some teenagers do drugs in high school, I did radical. The journey back was long and excruciating.

But today I knelt on the floor in my office for the papal benediction and cried because, for the first time in my entire conscious life, I understood the joy of being a Catholic in communion with Rome in this transcendent moment. The pope, the Catholic papacy, was actually the key to my return.

It was almost amusing to watch the mad dash for details about the man who came forward after the timeless greeting:

Anuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Hebemus Papam!

The chatter-class, friends, foes, or mercenaries, will spend the next few days hunting for every biographical scrap on Pope Francis. The Catholic secret is that none of it matters. Some of it will have relative significance. I do not mean to minimize the good or harm that can depend on the personal sanctity or rectitude of the vicar of Christ. But ultimately, the reason life ground to a halt while a billion people were fixated on the election of the pope is not because the elected individual was so important, but precisely because he is not. The pope transcends time, space, and all the comings and goings of the noisy human commerce of this world. The pope even transcends his own person.

Roughly two thousand years ago, a teacher crossed the “Holy Land.” He preached a code of life for three years before being executed by the occupying potentates of His age. One thing differentiated this man from other philosophers whose teachings survived them: He claimed to be God.

Before He died, Jesus Christ established a Church with a specific characteristic: it would be governed by a supreme authority. This leader would have a clearly defined job description: preserve twelve core teachings, instruct the disciples to practice love of God and neighbor by keeping the Ten Commandments, and hand down the seven sacraments — outward signs instituted to transmit the inner strength we all need to keep the commandments. The pope exists only to ensure that anyone who wants to know what Jesus taught can always find the essential message without alteration or perversion, along with the resulting morality and power to live it.

History has offered mankind a parade of successors of St. Peter, the first pope. Some were notorious sinners. Some were sublime saints. Most were a mix of both. Many non-Catholics mistake the outpouring of devotion and enthusiasm shown the pope for guru-worship or “idolatry.” It is precisely the opposite. The temporal, fleeting human being (even when he is holy and beloved by the people) is not the object of our respect and attachment. In the pope we honor the means Christ chose to pass on his teachings. We look at the pope and see another link in the chain that stretches, unbroken, back to the day when Jesus Christ set up the structure that would carry His gifts across the rise and fall of empires, the infection of plagues ,and the discovery of new worlds in spite of the evils in a broken world and every human weakness or corruption in His Church.

What appears superficially to be an arcane symbol of oppression and choreographed despotism originated with a person familiar with human nature who wished to be sure His followers would never have to say:

There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.

We all want to know the meaning of our lives, particularly the suffering and injustice. The idea that our existences are nothing but jokes is profoundly painful and disorienting, and we crave, more than anything else, a “way out of here.”

This week, the world watched while “all along the watchtower,” the cardinals, princes of the Church, did keep the view. Today, two riders approached: the man who first built His keep two thousand years ago, and the one holding down the fort until the wind is done howling.

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