Marchand Chronicles: Pope John Paul II(UPDATE: A revised version of this column appeared in the April 12 edition of the University Of Notre Dame Observer.)
Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Sinned: Confessions Of A "Cafeteria Catholic"
The Marchand Chronicles
April 11, 2005
"I'm no longer a practicing Catholic . . . I'm so good I don't need the practice anymore."
Cute humorous witticisms such as that served as a nice deflection, so I didn't really have to answer the question of why I didn't go to Mass.
Originally, I skipped Mass for the same reason most kids do: I considered it ridiculous that anyone would waste a perfectly good late morning and early afternoon to dress in fancy clothes, sit (and stand, and sit, and kneel, and sit, and stand, etc.) in a stuffy dusty building and listen to some old geezer drone on for 90 minutes. It seemed pointless. And since my Catholic mother eventually divorced my non-Catholic father, when she avoided Mass, I got to avoid it, too. When she felt guilty about missing Mass, I lost an opportunity to sleep in.
I think the real turning point for me, though, came during a retreat offered by my (Catholic) high school. During their junior and senior years, students were offered a two-day retreat at a campground with teachers and clergy, ostensibly to grow in their faith. I went because I could miss two days of class to hang out with my friends. In the morning, we walked to a secluded spot in the woods and held Mass. It was there when I realized why I disliked going to church: church was a place of worship for God that was created and controlled by man. The outdoor Mass allowed us to worship God in the glory of His creation, and I felt the presence of the divine unimpeded by the construction and the rhetoric of man.
I quit going to Mass after that. I didn't feel ashamed in the least.
The child-molestation scandal that rocked the Church while I was in the midst of my collegiate years at my (Catholic) university only served to bolster the argument: here these men, allowed to perform the duties of the apostles in the service of Christ, still could not escape the crude evil of their own human tendencies to sin. If we couldn't trust these men with the most innocent among us, our children, who could we trust?
But I always felt I could trust the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.
It's difficult for someone of my age to convey the magnitude of John Paul's service as pope to people who have lived much longer and have seen pontiffs come and go; it's far harder to explain to some who have memories of when the Mass was said entirely in Latin. John Paul has literally been the Holy Father for my entire life. Unlike other important posts, the President for one, pontiffs have a certain air of eternalness to them. Presidents are designed to come and go every four to eight years based on the will of voters and of rules designed to limit their service. Popes are selected by the power of the Holy Spirit and serve for the rest of their lives. However, John Paul left a lasting impression on the Church he served that was not seen and may not be seen again for centuries. He was a man of God, so much so that even followers and leaders of other faiths have recognized it after his death.
By lapsing into grave sin and betrayal of their congregations, many clergymen proved that they are no better than the worst of the sinners they are called to reconcile to God's loving grace. But John Paul, armed only with a staff and a funny-looking bulletproof car, was willing to stare evil in the face and defeat it. "How many divisions does the Pope have?", Josef Stalin was said to have asked. When communism fell, led by reform spurred by John Paul in his native Poland, the answer finally came: it didn't matter. By the way, the bulletproof "Popemobile" came about because of the attempted assassination against him in 1981; but he didn't even need it when he met, and forgave, his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Furthermore, he won him over so much that he called John Paul his "brother" and grieved over his death. The faith and charisma demonstrated by that one act alone borders on mind-boggling.
It doesn't surprise younger admirers of John Paul, though. The clergy I grew up with seemed indifferent to the concerns of the young; I never established a rapport with them (then of course, too many priests took advantage of the very young). John Paul focused especially on youth during his service. Another youthful Catholic, BlondeChampagne, coined a nickname for John Paul II which I adapted: The Deuce. Calling the Vicar Of Christ by a pet name might seem sacrilegious. But Pope John Paul II once wore a rock star's sunglasses (note: it's unknown whether or not that picture is genuine; however, official photos exist that prove he at least received the shades). In that light, it's not an insult but an expression of our genuine love for him.
Yet while nobody doubts John Paul's charisma, arguments have sprung up from all over about the wisdom of his so-called "closed-minded" faith. But John Paul's never-before-seen appeal was anchored on the eternal truths of Church teaching. No matter: the conservatism of the Church under John Paul is being blamed for everything from the explosion of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa to the departure of millions from the flock. Let's settle these arguments quickly: first, blaming John Paul and the Church's stand against contraception for the AIDS pandemic is one of the most strained leaps of logic I've ever witnessed in my young life. According to the theory, sexually active Africans, by following the Church laws, are transmitting AIDS to their partners with horrifying frequency; however, the Church's view on contraception is only part of its stance on sexual morality, which forbids sexual activity of any kind outside of marriage. Therefore, if Church doctrine were truly being followed, the rate of AIDS transmission would be much, much lower.
Second: millions aren't leaving the Church in a mass exodus because it's too restrictive. Even more "open-minded" organizations are having trouble reaching out to materially wealthy and spiritually complacent societies (but the Church is thriving in Africa and Latin America). People are leaving the Church because they're too lazy to follow it.
Like . . . me.
And now that John Paul is gone, I am ashamed of myself. Ashamed because I let my pet peeves about the ugliness and sensory discomfort of the buildings, the dullness of the homilies, and the evils of some priests distract me from following his more wonderful examples and growing into the fullness of a faith which never really left.
Please forgive me, Holy Father, for I have sinned.
When John Paul left this earth last week, millions of people made a pilgrimage to Rome to view his body. Cardinals convened to determine who should succeed him. The President ordered American flags lowered to half-staff.
And the streets around my local church were lined with parked cars for three blocks in all directions.
(Edited 4/13 3:04 AM to add the Observer link.)