When I was ten years old I met Pope John Paul II. It was during a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. I was attending the mass with my dad during a trip to Rome together.

The woman directly to the left of me in the picture shoved past my dad the moment the pope arrived by us. Not that it mattered much to my dad. As choir director at St. Patrick’s Catholic church in Markham, Ontario, he had several occasions to meet Pope John Paul II.

My dad is current director of the Office of Formation for Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His boss, the Archbishop of Toronto, is Cardinal Thomas Collins, whom Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal just last year, and who was therefore a member of the papal conclave that voted in the new pope. (Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was appointed Cardinal by John Paul II, in 2001.)

My grandfather also met a pope in his day.

I am fiercely proud of my dad, just as I am proud of my grandfather, despite not sharing their faith and belief system. Granted, I know that the kernel of my ethical system is the remnants of the culture of Christianity into which I was raised. And I’m fine with that. (There are fellow Left-leaning atheists whose moral and/or intellectual frameworks are less appealing to me than my conservative Catholic parents’.) But that’s all that’s left — remnants.

I’m neither god-fearing nor church-going anymore. In the almost twenty-five years (!) since that picture was taken I’ve gone from suit-wearing Jesus fanboy to what a friend once called “the only real atheist” she’d ever met, so thoroughgoing is my non-belief.

Over the past year it’s become more of a radical agnosticism, although  a more apt term would be profound ambivalence.

But one thing I do care about is who the new pope is.

I don’t care about the new pope any more than I care about the next president of Venezuela. But it matters who these people are. The Catholic church in particular exerts social, political, cultural, even economic influence on the world, not just the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. (Though that number is dubious: are folks like me still on the list?)

So who is Pope Francis? (Exciting time to be a Wikipedia page!)

He picked his pope name in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. He reportedly takes the bus rather than a limo, cooks his own meals, and thinks extreme poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth is a violation of human rights.

He’s also against birth control, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

As the first pope chosen from outside of Europe in over a thousand years, perhaps he’ll make the elimination of exploitation and the alleviation of poverty and suffering in the global south a priority over banning condoms, banning married gays, banning married priests, banning women priests, and banning access to education, technology and medical services in Africa, etc.

To paraphrase former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the church has no place in the bedrooms of the world’s nations. (Do with that what you will.) Jesus, after all, was concerned with overturning moneychanging tables, not riffling through bedside tables. In other words, the work of the church should be to disrupt the exploitative socioeconomic order of capitalism. Period.

Of course, I have as much hope as I have faith.

But as this new pope struggles to connect the gospels to the lives of modern believers, perhaps a new generation of believers will exert a counter-pressure on the papacy to modernize. To find Christianity’s kernel — social justice, egalitarianism, peace — and discard the rest.

Papa, remembered

It’s ironic that today I remember my Papa for something he wanted to forget.

Every year around this time, until his death in 2006, he used to make his way down to the Pier legion for the ceremonies. But at home he almost never talked about the war. Except to say “there were things I don’t want to remember.”

He thought war was a racket — a way to keep the economy going. If he’d lived a few more years, he’d have predicted that the only way out of the global economic crisis was war. Then he would have added: “Mark my words.”

His medals weren’t hidden away, but they weren’t on display either.

Much of Papa’s time was spent in Italy. My dad remembers him talking once about moving through Italy until things were secure. Then his company got a leave and they all went to Rome and saw Pius XII. When my dad first met a pope, and then when I did (John Paul II on a trip to Rome when I was 11), Papa reminded us that he’d beaten us to it.

His army buddies threw him into a huge water cistern once. He almost drowned. They thought he could swim because he was from Cape Breton and lived near the ocean.

He did talk a little about the challenges of feeding so many troops. And, although he never had a driver’s licence at home, about the trucks in Italy and the difficulty of keeping them going under such circumstances.

On more than one occasion (usually very late, after he’d had a couple), he’d reminisce about good times in an Italian village that had been liberated. About local people feeding troops at their homes. About parties in town squares.

Then he’d remember one of his friends, who didn’t come home, and he’d drift off.

Lest he remember. Lest we forget.

Remembrance Day, November 11th, 2012.