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.