I became a confirmed Catholic during my freshman year of high school. My journey into the church was one that took a lot of consideration, but I was in love with the local Catholic Church and its focus on caring for the poor, youth outreach, and community involvement. My tenure as a Catholic has thus far spanned three popes, many scandals within the church, and at times has left me with more questions than answers. The journey from John Paul II to Francis has been rough and tumble for thousands of faithful followers over the last 10 years.
I was very active in my church as a teen. I was a mentor for the middle school youth group, participated in Food Fasts and Habitat for Humanity builds, fell in love with a church that I believed in, and followed the teachings of Jesus Christ: “Love thy neighbor,” and whatnot. While the church still struggled with archaic views on homosexuality and women’s rights, the attitude when I walked into Mass was focused on building community and serving our peers. As a young, liberal 15-year-old, I felt at home in this place, which taught a lesson of love and acceptance.
The Catholic Mass is a ritual that is almost meditative for the practiced Catholic, and can be full of wonder for a new adherent. Each part is consistent and familiar, from the opening processional to the profession of faith, culminating in the sacrament of the Eucharist and closing with the message, “Go in peace and serve the Lord.” For me, the part of the Mass that was always most enthralling was the idea that every Catholic in the world was reading the same readings and Gospel as we were that Sunday, sharing faith in a global community, and the “hallelujah” chorus that became so familiar. I knew that I was surrounded by people that loved and respected me, and that worshiped a loving God, who had given his only begotten son to save us, and who asked us to do his work through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A little over a year later, Pope John Paul II died and Pope Benedict XVI was swept in on a wave of change. In some of his first public comments, he quoted text calling the Prophet Mohammed “evil and inhuman.” And with that brief comment the church erased the decades of work Pope John Paul II made in trying to bring together the global religious communities. Over the course of his papacy he continued to disparage the gay community by comparing gay marriage to a “manipulation of nature” and calling it “pseudo-marriage” (not to mention a letter he wrote as cardinal condemning a Seattle Archbishop regarding “the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity”). He reinforced the losing battle against birth control, and also made comments degrading fertility assistance treatments such as in vitro fertilization, stating, “No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery.” When you combine these offenses with the indefensible role he played in the direct cover-up of child molestation by priests, it’s easy to see why many Catholics struggled to find a home in his Catholic Church.
His papacy ended as strangely as possible when he became the first pope to resign since the 1400s. Needless to say, as part of a growing group of young liberal adults in the Catholic Church, I struggled to find my place in a community that had alienated so many. I watched a church that I had loved turn an overwhelming focus onto anti-abortion movements, and supporting candidates like the un-Googleable Rick Santorum. I felt completely left out by this pope, and the way he divided people and made me feel like I constantly had to defend myself for being Catholic because of the outlandish remarks he made. I watched as many of my peers, and myself, decreased our church attendance and dedication.
For many years I have felt a loss of who I am and how I identify with myself as I struggled to recognize the church that I had studied and devoted so much of my life to understanding. My faith in God was strong, and my belief in the sacraments was unending. Yet somehow, I felt myself questioning everything. In the prologue of the Catechism, the church taught that “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope, or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.” And yet, here I was in a church that was teaching hate. This was a message I could not bear.
However, the papacy of Pope Francis has ushered in a certain and swift new outlook. Pope Francis, who as cardinal made harsh criticisms of Pope Benedict XVI’s anti-Islam sentiments, was welcomed in by the Saudi and Argentinean Islamic communities as a great supporter of interfaith dialogue. Pope Frances echoed the ideas of liberals everywhere while talking about the pro-life movement, indicating that while members of the church ought to protect the unborn, he encouraged Catholics to embrace “the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development” and that members of the church cannot be both vehemently pro-life and also not protect the lives of those that have already been born.
Pope Francis has even opened the door to atheists and stated, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
While atheists obviously don’t need the blessings of the pope, it is still significant to have a pope that doesn’t entirely admonish an entire group of people. This new pope has given marching orders to the Vatican priests to go out and serve the people, even telling the Vatican almoner (who passes out money or goods to the poor, also known as “alms”) to sell his desk, because he is to spend his days out in the city of Rome. He is also known for a stark criticism of trickle-down economics, which led Rush Limbaugh to call him a Marxist. Anyone who Rush doesn’t like is fine in my book.
He made headlines again for commenting that he didn’t want to be seen “as a sort of Superman, a star,” and that he wants people to instead focus on the church as a whole. Considering widespread criticism in years past on the wealth and power in the Vatican, this is another unique move that Francis has made to mend bridges with the international community.
Over the past year, Pope Francis has taken some incredible and important stands that have changed the way the church will react moving forward. It will be interesting to see what impact this will have on the young of the church. As a young Catholic, I find myself relapsing into faith and dedication to a church that I was once so passionate about. Having a leader who teaches lessons of love and inclusion makes that very easy. Pope Francis was the Time Magazine “Person of the Year” for 2013, and hopefully he will continue to turn one of the world’s largest churches toward a message of acceptance. The young, liberal Catholics of the world will be watching and waiting.