I’m practically the definition of a lapsed Catholic. I don’t go to mass, but I feel vaguely guilty about it, especially at Easter; I can’t help doing a Sign of the Cross when I walk into a church, but I haven’t been to confession in years; I have Opinions on the new wording of the mass that are decidedly mixed because come on, “and with your spirit,” but maybe “consubstantial” is a little closer to the original Latin, I don’t know. I’ve thought about writing at greater length about why the Church and I have been “It’s Complicated” on Facebook for some years now — the Church’s attitudes towards women and the LGBTQ community, my skepticism towards any long-entrenched organization, the Church’s scandals — and maybe one day I will, but for now, it’s not necessary to do so. Though the Church and I may not always get along, I still consider myself a spiritual person and more Christian than anything.
So today we went to the Vatican.
I like Pope Francis a lot. I like that he chose the name Francis for a host of reasons. (My sister has accused me several times of being “such a St. Francis” because I have a history of doing things like accidentally adopting a puppy for 10km on the Camino; I’ve written previously about my fondness for the Prayer of St. Francis.) I like that he is dedicated to helping the poor. I like that he has made positive statements about atheists. I fervently hope that his famous “Who am I to judge?” statement on homosexuality is only his first gentle push towards full acceptance in the Church of gay Catholics.
When I was getting dressed, I joked that maybe I shouldn’t wear my Ganesh/Lakshmi pendant even though I was confirmed wearing a (different) Ganesh pendant. Mom said “Well, why not?” so I ended up stringing the pendant, a cross, and a trinity knot onto one necklace, and a Saint Michael medal onto another. (You see why I call myself “more Christian than not.”)
We left early in the hopes of getting tickets to the papal audience at 10:30. Wending our way around the basilica, we waved off tour guide after tour guide offering us cheap tickets to the audience AND the museum AND Sistine Chapel — when we stopped and asked one woman where to get tickets for just the papal audience, she tried to sell us her tour, and then walked away as soon as it became clear that we weren’t buying anything from her. At the Musei Vaticani a security guard told us we had to go back to get tickets to the audience; on further consultation of our guidebooks we realized that you couldn’t get the tickets the day of, but had to get them 1-3 days in advance, from the Swiss Guard, somewhere. We gave up — we are trying to let go of expectations — and found a decent spot by a fence from which to watch the Jumbotron.
His Holiness was on screen already, trundling through the crowds in St. Peter’s square, greeting people, blessing them, kissing children offered to him by their parents, who must have been there at dawn to get a good space. Imagine those kids, most much too young to know what was going on, knowing for the rest of their lives that they were kissed by a pope. A teenage girl perched on a fence and leaned over to give Francis a hug, and I thought, watching them on the Jumbotron, that it looked like a good hug, a hug that meant it, a hug you’d cherish.
How exhausting it must be, I thought, to touch the hands and heads of person after person after person and give them your love, and God’s love, and mean it. No wonder he only does it once a week. I kept thinking of the song “The Temple” in Jesus Christ Superstar — doubly appropriate, given the number of merchants we’d passed, and would pass, to get to the basilica.
I commented to my mom that it was a lot like going to a really big concert, where you’re watching someone incredibly famous do cool stuff on a big screen because you’re way too far away to interact with them closely.
When he finished his rounds, the Pope moved to a seat, and a series of Monsignors came up to give a reading in six different languages. It was hard to hear with all the reverb, but I’m pretty sure (after some debate over whether it was Galatians 3 or Romans 12) it was Corinthians 12:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Words of community — of belonging.
I’ll be honest: after the readings I began to tune out. I’m pretty certain Francis was speaking in Spanish, but the acoustics in our spot were too poor for me to understand more than the occasional completely out of context word, like mañana. I enjoyed seeing him speak extempore, putting aside his paper, and watching the wind blow his clothes into his face, which he dealt with with good grace, but I had no idea what was going on anymore. My only goal — the goal my parents were kindly, patiently willing to indulge — was to stick around to the end, when the Pope leads the crowd in the Pater Noster. So I let my mind wander.
What it landed on, probably not surprisingly, was Dogma. Was, specifically, this (contains strong language):
Rufus: He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier.
At the end of the movie, after Bethany has received irrefutable proof of God (in the form of Alanis Morissette), Rufus asks her, “Are you saying you believe?” She replies, “No. But I have a good idea.”
I don’t really know where I’m going with this.
The audience stretched on, and on, and more and more people started to leave St. Peter’s square, and we had more and more room on our stretch of fence, and I was starving and my feet were aching, and I finally said you know what, we’re giving up our expectations, let’s go get lunch. As we headed out for the main street again, we turned back to take a few more pictures of St. Peter’s.
And were perfectly positioned to see the Jumbotron, and hear much more clearly, as His Holiness began singing the Pater Noster.
So I got what I came to the Vatican for.
And then, as a completely charming epilogue, was treated to a recording of some possibly-South American group singing an incredibly cheery song that seemed to consist almost entirely of badumdumdumdums.
Afterwards we went to the Pantheon, where I mostly made Assassin’s Creed jokes to myself and took a lot of pictures and didn’t worry overmuch about, well, anything.
I don’t know, many days, exactly what I believe. I try to let my beliefs be in flux, whether they’re about politics, religion, social justice, or just who would win in a fight, Batman or Green Lantern.
If I have any idea, they’re that nobody ever went wrong welcoming more people in. Nobody ever went wrong by listening. And when given a chance to sing with a thousand other voices — whether it’s “Hey Jude” or the Our Father — it’s worth taking.