Requiem for the Vicar

I have been contemplating the passing of Pope John Paul II, trying to make sense of it, and what it means to me, a lapsed Catholic – whatever that means. “Lapsed” sounds like I forgot to pay my dues – but oh, believe you me, I think I’ve paid them.

When I was a practicing Catholic I never knew quite what to make of the pope. (“Practicing” sounds like I never quite got it right. In which case, am I still practicing?) I am not alone in this state of wonder. Many people I know who once went to Mass or parochial school or grew up in the culture of Catholicism have expressed these same feelings. As Pope John Paul II’s health failed, as his death became inevitable, we wondered, how should we feel?

I felt, in a word, strange. I used to be a devout Catholic in my 20s and through my 30s, going to daily Mass. I commuted to San Francisco on BART and every day at noon would dash down to the Embarcadero to catch the noon Mass. Every day. I did the same thing at St. Mary’s in Walnut Creek on my lunch hour when I worked there, and later, when I lived in San Leandro, I discovered the 6:30 a.m. Mass at St. Leander’s, which I could just get to and back before I had to get kids to school.

People asked me why I went to church so often. They’d say, “You are so good,” and, true-blue Catholic, I’d say, “No, it’s because I’m so bad. I just want to be good.” I’d go to Mass and then trip on the doorstep coming out, and a curse would pass my lips, and that blew it. I had erased the good of my morning prayers, and knew I’d be back the next day. It was always something: I was impatient with my mother-in-law. I was peevish with my husband or children. I thought uncharitably toward other drivers. I turned away a homeless person’s request for money. I listened to the prayers and the exhortation to be more perfect, and I tried to be that. Could I have set myself up for failure any more exquisitely?

But I also loved the discipline of daily Mass. It became something like brushing your teeth – you might skip it, but you feel funky about it and really feel much better when you do it properly. I made sure my knee always touched the ground when I genuflected. I always shook hands with everyone I could reach. I sang all the words to all the hymns. I was fully present for the homily, even when it was, um, not terribly interesting.

And I loved the rituals: fire, water, smells and bells. I loved the sitting, kneeling, standing to pray, standing to sing, holding hands with my neighbors and sharing faith with that small community. I loved all those things and hungered for it, and sought out that same sense of peace when the church was empty, and I was the sole venturer into the sacred space. I loved the light of the red votive candles, that waxy gloom. I loved being in the presence of the Holy One. I knew I was not alone.

But things happen and people change and life takes a toll. As I have written about before in this space, when my family split up, I couldn’t find the answers I needed there anymore, and I didn’t feel at ease. I went to confession, I spoke to the priest, I made an appearance at holidays, then I drifted away. I miss the Church, a little – and yet, am just not sure what’s there for me anymore.

This week, as the faithful gathered, I found myself drawn to the TV, to read the news stories about the playwright who became a priest, who fought for the end of Communism, who defied world leaders, who chastised those who fell short of their obligations, who said war was always, always wrong. I remembered how he won the hearts of the people. I also remembered the pronouncements he had made about birth control and homosexuality and the status of women.

The Catholic Church is a creaky old thing that has slowly followed (and led) the tide of humanity for 2,000 years. There are some amazing, wonderful things going on inside its walls, and some not so great. There are issues of secrecy and silence which harm (read my novel, for God’s sake), and there are triumphs of social justice, of peace and goodwill and forgiveness, too.

Someone once told me the Church is like your family – you may not like everyone in it, you may not like everything they do, but they’re still your family. I watched the announcement of the pope’s passing Saturday and found myself in tears.

What does it all mean, and who can explain it? It’s all part of the great mystery now: something to think about as we eat our cornflakes and go about our day.

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