Viva il Papa!

Newly-elected Pope Francis, with Catholic cardinals. (NYTimes photo)

Newly-elected Pope Francis, with Catholic cardinals. (NYTimes photo)

I’m a lapsed Catholic. I have been since that fateful period when I left home, threw off parental shackles—and became a born-again Xian. I know, usually you leave home and get wild, right?

It’s a long story, and I won’t bore my readers with too many details. However, with a new pope on-board in Rome, I think a pope post is in order.

Here is what’s known this morning after the puff of white smoke yesterday afternoon signaled that a new pope had been chosen. From the NY Times story we know that the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced Ber-GOAL-io), will be called Francis. He becomes the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He is also the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.

Francis is 76. He was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Commentators are saying that the cardinals’ choice is sending a powerful message that the future of the church lies in the global south, home to the bulk of the world’s Catholics.

My first thought upon learning that the man elected to lead the largest religious organization in the world was 76 was this; the Catholic hierarchy couldn’t have found a man younger than 76 (that’s an age that’s a decade past retirement in most places)? I’m not trying to be agist, but 76 seems a bit long in the tooth to be heading up a global institution like the Catholic Church.

Listening to NPR after the announcement and taking in the analysis, it all seemed funny to me. The seriousness in their voices, waxing on about the Church, the tradition of the institution, etc. seemed so disconnected from the reality that I know. Outside of people like my parents, wholly devoted to all things Catholic, most of the “faithful” seem lukewarm at best about living out the teachings of Jesus. Of course, the young man who disavowed his Catholic heritage would argue that Catholicism actually perverted the teachings of Christ. There are others in the Protestant camp that takes this as gospel.

I’m not ignorant of the history of this institution. In fact, when I “walked away from my faith,” which caused all manner of consternation in my parents and framed our relationship forever afterwards, I thoroughly researched what I knew at the time. Of course, my initial reference point was Jack Chick, but that’s a whole other pack of tracts.

When I was younger, I was an altar boy. I enjoyed that experience and I’m planning to add more detail about this in an upcoming book of essays and stories that I’m currently working on. I also got myself in hot water prior to leaving the Church by delving into banned books.

The book at the time that got me sideways with my traditional Catholic parents was On Being a Christian, by Hans Kung. That necessitated a visit to our parish priest who tried to convince me not to read books by men that weren’t in the Church’s good graces. The curious thing about that book (in hindsight) is that it wasn’t particularly critical of Catholic orthodoxy like many of Kung’s other books. But his book lacked the Catholic imprimatur and Kung in the late 1960s became the first major Roman Catholic theologian since the late 19th century Old Catholic Church schism to publicly reject the doctrine of papal infallibility. Seeing me toting his book around naturally freaked out my parents.

The benefit of 30 years of hindsight makes me realize now that this was an early indication that I wasn’t given to monolithic versions of the truth. Of course, I didn’t heed that lesson at the time, which led to another entire chapter on Protestant abuses of power and misdeeds.

 I’m happy sitting here today, taking all of this in from a distance, calling myself a post-Xian. Religion is fine for some. It never worked very well for me.