As I sat and whiled the day away on the second day of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, I did what the nuns always demanded when any of their pupils misbehaved: I examined my conscience. What was going on with me, the self-described atheist who believes organized religion to be a sinister influencer of world conflict?
“Go, the Mass has ended.”
The last time I heard those words from the altar of a Catholic Church was at a funeral in the late 1990s. Although I can almost recite an entire Catholic Mass in Latin, I really thought I had lost whatever it was I had in the way of warm fuzzies about Catholicism.
I didn’t even know the Pope was coming to the United States until he actually got here. After he arrived in Washington, it occurred to me that I actually had heard rumblings as I did my usual multi-tasking with the news broadcasting mutedly in the background.
My status of “recovering Catholic” began in college, when I started learning about life outside the Thou-Shalt-Nots of my parochial schooling,. One definite no-no was attending non-Catholic church services, so it never occurred to me to learn about other religions. I thought that was probably a sin, too.
The media’s real or feigned excitement about the comings and goings of the popular (even to me) Pope Francis must have been contagious because I found myself glued to the television as if we were back during the time when President Kennedy was taken from us so suddenly. I found myself responding positively to the man who is Pope. I couldn’t take my eyes off him or take my attention away from his words. His quiet, leisurely speech delivery, instead of being boring, was soothing, almost relaxing. His pure joy when interacting with the people in the streets, far more so than the dignitaries he was forced to greet and indulge, was transfixing. This man embodied everything I had imagined as a small child sitting in a hard, highly polished pew listening to the Pope’s message at Sunday Mass.
As I sat and whiled the day away on Friday, the second day of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, I did what the nuns always demanded when any of their pupils misbehaved: I examined my conscience. What was going on with me, the self-described atheist who believes organized religion to be a sinister influencer of world conflict? Me, the person who spent three weeks in Europe exploring dozens of grandiose cathedrals that dripped with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds and pearls. All this excess seemed so far removed from the teachings of Jesus Christ, from the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by the Dominican nuns who shaped my understanding of Catholicism. I kept thinking, while being mesmerized by stained glass windows of overwhelming detail and beauty, how the lives of many suffering people of the world could have been made comfortable if this wealth had been distributed among them.
Popes were individuals of unmatched status to the child I was in the 1950s, when I attended St. James Catholic School in my home town of Maywood, Illinois. They ruled over more people than the President of the United States. Their word, according to church doctrine, was infallible, and at the time I thought that meant on all subjects. My attention may have wandered to the Stations of the Cross which encircled the sacristy during the Homily and the Sunday Sermon, but I never dreamed through a reading of a papal encyclical. My young mind believed my attention to his words was imperative to my salvation.
As I grew older, however, I read of Popes who were nothing like what I expected them to be. Pope Alexander VI – Rodrigo Borgia of Spain – was elected Pope in 1492, a significant year in American history. His conduct during his reign that ended with his death in 1503 was about as far removed from my expectations as one could get and still bear the title. He observed the rules against papal marriages, but that didn’t stop him from sireing several children among a number of mistresses, the most famous of whom may be his daughter Lucrezia Borgia. Talk about a rude awakening! My imagery of papal deportment was shattered into shards of broken vows and self-centered humanity. Thus began my journey toward atheism. It took decades to evolve to its current level of certainty, but those early exposures to real history, and not the highly romanticized history I learned in parochial school, put me on the path.
When the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden neared the point at which the Pope would utter the words that opened this essay, I found myself saddened a little that it was over. I realized at that point that my psyche associated the sights and sounds of Catholic ritual with the profound sense of peace I felt whenever I attended such a ceremony. Even the scent of incense, which actually nauseated me when I was a smaller child, would have been an olfactory trigger of the feeling of being centered and safe, had I been there in person.
My faith, such as it was, hasn’t been reawakened by this string of papal events. I am firm in my belief that heaven and hell are achieved in life, not in death. I continue to abhor the pain and suffering religious zealotry has caused humanity since the beginning of time. What I do have is a new understanding of the role religions can and do play for individuals trying to find their ways through a chaotic and unpredictable life. When one believes there is a power that overrides one’s own, there can be comfort in throwing the fear of the unknown into the hands of the superior being.
I often tell people that I was never really given the gift of faith. I seem to have been in line when the other two virtues, hope and charity, were bestowed, but I obviously missed the day faith was offered. Sometimes I feel regretful about that because I must rely solely upon myself to make it through this crazy life. But I haven’t lost the ability to feel the wonderment, the temporary peace and the serenity offered by Catholic ritual. I was surprised by this, although I probably shouldn’t have been. The teachings of Catholicism shaped my way of being in this life. When I hear a siren out in the distance, to this day, I have the urge to make the sign of the cross, which was something we were taught to do in school. I still care about that person who is being whisked to the hospital or who is a victim of crime. I even care about the person who might be in trouble with the police.
And, when I pay attention to the ear worms that invade my distracted thoughts, I find myself humming and, often, singing liturgical hymns, most of which are associated with happiness and joy.
I guess the old saw applies here, too. You can take the woman out of Catholicism but you can’t take Catholicism completely out of the woman.
Lezlie Bishop is a mixed-race woman in her early 70s who has fought racism her entire life. After retiring from her corporate public relations position in 2000, Lezlie blogged on the now-defunct Open Salon and is a regular contributor to The Broad Side. She is a co-author of the book Talking to the Wall. To read more of her blog posts, go to her personal blog, Senior Moments of Clarity.
Image via Pixabay/in the public domain