“I don’t give a crap about the Pope, it’s the government I am worried about”.
This recent telephone exchange with my ailing father sums up the household I grew up in.
My mother, when my sister was 6 and came home in tears from Sunday school, after having learned about the devil, went to bat with the priest, screaming that if he was intent on scaring her daughter, she would withdraw her.
My path to atheism was not tortuous. I never really believed in God, not even when I briefly flirted with becoming a nun at age 10. It was the pageantry, the heady smell of incense, the hush in the century old churches of my childhood that entranced me. As soon as I walked away, at 13, I never really looked back. Nowadays, the rhythms of the Jewish holidays scan the passing of time in my household (but that’s another story for another time) and as much as I love the rituals of atonement and renewal, I still don’t believe that a higher being, up in the sky, has anything to do with my earthly pursuits.
Yet, I couldn’t stop myself from tuning in when I heard a new Pope had been elected. On the phone with an Italian friend, she screamed “There is white smoke at the Vatican” and, when we hung up, I moved my writing operation to the kitchen so I could tune it and see who it was. Why, exactly, did I care? I only step into churches for tourist purposes and my involvement with Catholicism is limited to the disgust I feel whenever a new pedophilia scandal breaks the news. Was I just another victim of the media, always busy at creating excitement and anticipation even where there is none?
It goes deeper than that. The Vatican has always been a player in the power struggles of Italian politics since its inception. That most Italians happily use contraception and get divorced at a higher rate than the rest of Europe, contravening Catholic teachings, is a just representation of how adept we are at splitting what we believe and what we practice. Centuries of pillage, submission and fragmentation have taught us how to reach the best possible personal outcome regardless of who is in power. Yet, religion, any religion, is a unifying factor for many people, especially in moments of need. And then there are pageantry and traditions, which Europeans find so soothing. And I am not immune.
As a child, I remember watching a black and white tv, waiting for the white smoke, because it’s what we did, it’s part of our culture, and here I am, doing it again half a world away. The Latin the state-mandated school curriculum forced me to study against my will, if basic, still serves me well, giving me some satisfaction in understanding who the new Pope was before NBC News could figure it out. I can picture the cardinals in their red cassocks walking along the magnificent Sistine Chapel, a religious experience in itself. I have seen one Pope or another appearing on that balcony while watching the news more times that I can remember. The crowds of faithful gathered in that majestic square are always a sight to behold. It’s the rituals that get me, it is all so familiar and so soothing and reminiscent of my roots.
I wish Francis I well. If his power will not stretch over people like me, I recognize he has the power to steer one church, one religion back to its original teachings of humility, of reaching out to the poor and the suffering. He has the power to bring back into the Church’s folds those of all sexual orientations. Above all, he has the power, if not to remedy the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, to speak about it openly, to atone and to eradicate it. I would suggest endorsing condoms, abolishing celibacy and ordaining women but that might be pushing it too far.
The less cerebral part of me feels some envy for those who believe – I would never mock them or belittle them because I see purity and trust in believing in a higher being and in a better world after our demise; I see hope, maybe an easier acceptance of our earthly sufferings. But I made peace with all that. Relishing in traditions and pageantry anchors me to my past and to a beleaguered country I was proud to call home once. And that is why I rushed to the tv and waited for those double doors to open. It felt like home.
Images found here