Note: This post has blissfully sat in draft form since last fall’s papal visit to the U.S. Since that time I’ve either been reflecting on my thoughts about organized religion, or most likely just ignoring the draft out of laziness. I am, however, recently inspired by another blogger’s work, the always engaging Victo Dolore at Behind the White Coat. Her thoughts about religion in the post Choosing Faith stirred a desire for me to finally get back to my idled post. I am grateful to her for the motivation to finish it.
The Pope’s visit earlier this year got my attention in a way that I hadn’t quite anticipated. As I’ve posted before, the pomp and splendor of Catholic ceremonies have always fascinated me. It’s not about the actual religious significance attached to any of it because I’m not Christian, nor am I someone with any kind of theological bearing. I just really enjoy watching all of the elaborate church protocols that are painstakingly followed from centuries of tradition.
It’s the same kind of attraction that I also have for all things related to the British monarchy. I revel in the formality and stuffy atmosphere of it all. It’s certainly a long way from when the rabbi of my 1960’s childhood synagogue would end a Friday night sabbath service with an invitation for the congregation to “be sure and stick around for cake, cookies, and coffee, courtesy of the sisterhood.” The fanciest thing I probably saw back then was the fake mink stole worn by Mrs. Marks, my Sunday School teacher.
Nevertheless, I do have to be honest with myself about the Pope’s visit because it did stir something inside of me. I watched way more of the activities on television than I had planned, and I also experienced more than just a voyeur’s passing interest in the pageantry. Something about the Pope himself struck a personal chord that I can’t attribute solely to the fancy robes, those exotically cool smokey thuribles, and his neato entourage of footmen and valets. Unlike previous pontiffs, this is one charismatic and sincere dude.
Perhaps most striking about the pope’s visit for me came not from his public appearances, but rather from those with whom he met privately. While I wasn’t thrilled by the audience Francis gave to Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who gained notoriety for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, I did take note that he also had a visit with a former male student from Argentina who in turn brought along his boyfriend. Francis’ inclusive “who am I to judge?” message is refreshing. He has an ability to cut through the noise of political and religious intolerance. With those two quick brush strokes, he managed to ruffle feathers and piss-off liberals and conservatives alike by holding those private meetings.
Damn, he’s good.
I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I grew up in a home where faith was expressed by paying lip-service to holidays, attendance at Sunday School was sporadic, and Hebrew School enrollment was mandated for the sole purpose of getting Bar Mitzvah lessons only. Any expression of religious devotion back then was a mechanical and rote process in which I went through motions but felt no actual or sincere sentiment.
Like many kids who ponder their religious or ethnic upbringing, contradictions and ironies constantly poked at me from the shadows. For instance, I learned from my Sunday School studies why Jewish dietary rules are something each Jew should follow. Yet the only thing kosher in my mother’s kitchen were the little “u” and “k” symbols on the cans and packaged goods. Our kitchen was Jewish, yes. Kosher, no. Bacon and sausage were as common on our breakfast table as the matzoh brei or bagels and lox that often accompanied them.
My parents, both first generation children of immigrants, desperately wanted to live in a post-war America of their own fashion. I’m not really sure they ever discussed with one another a plan on how they would introduce religion into the lives of their children. Instead, they followed their own nose with an occasional glance at how relatives and college friends made similar choices. They decided to raise their kids in a predominantly Gentile, north Detroit suburb. The number of fellow Jewish classmates I had all the way through high school could be counted on one hand. On the occasions when we would get together with other Jews, we had to pile into a car and drive a few cities over from ours.
In spite of this, there was nonetheless a strong cultural identity in our home about being Jewish. My siblings and I were expected to Believe even if the rules were murky and for the most part undefined.
I took this uncertain attitude about faith and religion into adulthood. While I do believe in a higher power, and am perfectly happy to refer to that being as “God,” I am uncomfortable with the oft-public displays of faith that we seem to see everywhere now. Honestly, I really don’t care who your co-pilot is, just please stay off of your cell phone while you’re driving. In the perfect world where I am king, religious beliefs would stay private in the sanctity of one’s home or place of worship only, thank you very much.
Yet, watching this incredible man visiting from Rome last fall, who declined the lunch invitation from Congress to instead break bread at a DC homeless shelter, who visited with prisoners at a Philadelphia penitentiary, and who stopped a motorcade in New York when he spotted a paraplegic boy and his mother, I couldn’t help but find joy in his message. He gave me a delightful pause into my thinking.
Perhaps not since Archbishop Sheen has a religious figure been able to reach across religious lines as Pope Francis is currently doing. I am thrilled by his focus on poverty, inspired by his recognition of global warming, and heartened by his desire to compel his church’s leaders to consider new thoughts and ideas. He is a breath of fresh air.
In a world full of scary uncertainly, it’s good to see a figure who can offer something meaningful to everyone. Happy holidays to all.
Until next time…