Pope Francis and Me

Just your average Jewish-girl-falls-for-a-pope kind of love story.

Illustration by Heather Landis

Illustration by Heather Landis

My love affair with Catholicism started at age nine, when my family moved from Center City to Fairmount. Those years on 23rd Street were momentous. I saw a man commit suicide by jumping off a balcony. I got held up at knifepoint. My toes were damaged in a skateboarding accident. I saw my first dead body in my friend’s house, which doubled as a funeral home. I became slowly terrorized by OCD.

If ever there was a time when I needed religion, this was it. But my parents were atheist Jews.

So I decided I wanted to be Catholic. All my neighborhood friends were Catholic, and when they went to school they wore beautiful lemon yellow shirts and emerald green jumpers. Their school’s name sounded like something out of Narnia: St. Francis Xavier. The spelling of “Xavier” almost did me in.

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Sometimes I’d go with them to what they called the “Pinkies Church,” a chapel at 22nd and Green with cloistered nuns who wore rose-colored habits. We’d put our hands on the ornate brass gates the nuns lived behind and try to make the sisters talk, as tourists do with the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. I loved the silence of that chapel, its stained glass and carved wood, and the way you could just walk in and sit down on a creaking pew and think. The open doors of the neighborhood churches — and the lack of attention children received when they streamed in and out — were a comfort.

Moreover, I had recently become addicted to novels, and I found Catholicism was much like Judy Blume: It had an easy-to-follow narrative of alienation and redemption anchored by a single protagonist. Very satisfying.

After school one Ash Wednesday, I went to church with my friends and got my head smudged. When I went home, my mother explained that we didn’t do that. Why not? Denise did! Karen did! Colleen did! Every forehead in the neighborhood had a black splotch. Why couldn’t mine?

There was nothing I didn’t like about Catholicism, except what my friends told me about the non-Pinkie nuns at their school. My teachers wore bell-bottoms and played Bob Dylan on the guitar. They never smacked us. Otherwise, Catholicism seemed perfect.

IN MARCH 2013, white smoke funneled out of the Sistine Chapel chimney during the papal conclave to indicate that a new pope had been chosen. It looked like a billowing flag of surrender. Just a few months earlier, Pope Benedict XVI had become the first pope to resign his position — resign! Like Richard Nixon! — since the 15th century. The Vatican was in shambles. The allegations of child sexual abuse in the Church were bad enough. But there had been revelations that as a cardinal, Benedict ignored reports of that sexual misconduct. In 2010, the Vatican Bank, which had been engaged in money laundering for years, was finally exposed. In 2011, Italian journalist Carmelo Abbate published the book Sex and the Vatican, which revealed information about clandestine mistresses, illegitimate children and abortions. Then came Vatileaks, the document dump that chronicled the Vatican’s pervasive nepotism, careerism and fraud. In revelation after revelation, the Roman Curia made the Sopranos look like Norman Rockwell. I remember going to the Ritz that year to see Habemus Papam, an Italian film about a pope who runs away from the Vatican so he doesn’t have to take the job. Did Pope Benedict see the movie, too? Maybe it gave him some ideas.

Not everyone was watching the papal conclave as though it was the Super Bowl, but by 2013, I had become an avid Vatican observer. I got over my desire to become Catholic when I was 12 and we moved back to Center City. My pert little nine-year-old nose took a turn for the Semitic during puberty. It was as if God was saying, “Who are you trying to kid, bubula?”

While I forever remain in thrall to the aesthetics of Catholicism — my photo albums are filled with church interiors from Central America to the Caribbean to the Vatican itself — my current interest in the Catholic Church is primarily cultural, in light of its enormous global influence. Much of that influence comes from the pope: There are few public figures whose words get as much international media coverage or engender a comparable amount of dialogue. Whether he’s talking about abortion or homosexuality or poverty, when the pope talks, people listen.

And what this pope has had to say has been utterly transformational. The Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio — a total outsider, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years — has, as Pope Francis, managed to roll back years of PR damage. Since he first emerged onto the balcony of St. Peter’s and said a few modest words, his emphasis on ministering to those who have less has shifted the Church’s focus from internecine warfare to values like kindness, compassion, generosity — you know, Jesus stuff. And he’s not just spouting homilies. He quickly demonstrated his commitment to pastoral care during his first Holy Week, with the ritual foot-washing. Thwarting eons of doctrine, Francis tended not just to the men at a prison, but also to women and Muslims. The ensuing controversy heightened the inclusivity of the act.

When I saw the news coverage of Pope Francis kneeling down before prisoners, I was blown away. Some years before, I’d worked at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, where I learned a great deal about how brutal prison life can be. I also learned how little the average person cares about incarcerated people. Yet here was one of the most powerful men in the world not only bowing down before prisoners, but cradling their feet (which — let’s face facts — are one of the top five least appealing parts of the human anatomy). Who knew what these people had done in their lives? Surely they had broken commandments, committed sins. Yet the Pope was full of mercy, forgiveness and foot-acceptance. If he’d had merch for sale, I’d have dialed 1-800-POPEPOSTER right then.

But it’s not just these grand public gestures that have made me a fangirl.

I once applied for a job as a Vatican reporter because I thought it would be a sickening kind of fun to delve into the unprincipled shenanigans of the Mafia-like Roman Curia. Yet Francis has actually had the temerity to challenge them. At the end of last year, in a scathing address, he diagnosed the administrative body with 15 ailments characterized by symptoms like greed, materialism, hypocrisy, spiritual emptiness, dishonesty — and on and on. He just railed. He said one of their ailments is “existential schizophrenia,” which affects those who “limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people.”

Hence his insistence on returning the Church to its pastoral roots. It makes me think of Spencer Tracy and Boys Town, of a time when a friendly parish priest ministering to a neighborhood’s ills was what we thought of when we imagined Catholic clergy. If Francis sold bumper stickers, they would read, “Think global, act local.”

And speaking of local, I tend to like anyone who reminds me of my hometown, whose defining characteristic has long been a lack of hubris. Francis is completely unpretentious. He doesn’t care much about clothing (okay, vestments) or outer appearances, and he treats people equally whether they have money or don’t.

Speaking to the Telegraph last year, one of the cardinals who elected him said Francis’s humility is genuine: “Nobody told him to go and pay his hotel bill in Rome the day after he was elected Pope. Nobody tells him to carry his own beat-up old briefcase. He just does it as a decent, courteous human being.”

He reminds me of my dad, who’s my favorite native Philadelphian and the ultimate champion of the underdog. Francis is very … Philly.

Believe it.

THE LAST TIME A POPE came to Philly — Pope John Paul II, in 1979, for 21 hours and 12 minutes — I wasn’t thrilled. Even though I was living in that Catholic glow in Fairmount, he didn’t figure prominently in my imaginings. And though we lived close to Logan Circle, where he performed Mass, my parents didn’t go to see him. My sister and her boyfriend took me instead, and we couldn’t see anything save the crush of people shoulder-to-shoulder from Broad Street to the Art Museum. The Pope won many fans when, at his address at the Basilica, he said he felt he was “truly among friends.” He was, the way Francis is now, seen as an accessible rock-star pope.

But John Paul II and Francis are quite different. In an address in University City, John Paul II “reaffirmed the priestly role as a permanent, celibate state not open to women,” according to American Catholic’s Jack Wintz, who was in the audience that day. Wintz wrote, “I found out later that several priests, conscious of the pain many women would feel because of the pope’s remarks, restrained from applauding.” It’s virtually impossible to imagine Francis sounding any exclusionary note when he’s here. That’s not his style.

What is his style? Well, it would be to visit “a children’s hospital or a juvenile prison,” as Archbishop Bernardito Auza said Francis might do while he’s in town. But then again, the Archbishop, who’s on Francis’s organizing committee, also said he might do 23 other things, none of which are in Philly. Sounds like he’s going to spend lots of time in D.C. and New York; he’s not even flying into PHL initially. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will only say that “we anticipate that the Holy Father will visit Philadelphia September 26th-27th to participate in the closing events of the Eighth World Meeting of Families. These events include Festival of Families and a Papal Mass.” Well, sure. If he doesn’t do the Papal Mass, I don’t know who will — though I think my dad is available that day, if he’s not going to his drawing class at PAFA.

I was pretty disappointed to read that Francis won’t be spending more time in Philadelphia. We need him! With one simple visit to a neighborhood outside of Center City, he could bring so much awareness to our poverty issue. Does he need our bona fides? More than a quarter of our population lives below the poverty level, and there are almost 185,000 residents living in deep poverty. Roughly 60,000 are children. For a child living in deep poverty in Philadelphia to meet the Pope — that would be something else.

As for me, I plan to go see him — probablywith my guests. I’ve posted an ad for my two-bedroom apartment on the World Meeting of Families website, so weary Francis-loving travelers might come stay with me. Given that I’m a reclusive person who lives not unlike the cloistered Pinkie nuns, this is out of character, but Francis inspires generosity. I wrote in the profile that the bed is IKEA, there will be no breakfast provided, and I’m not Catholic. And only one of those is subject to change.

Originally published as “Francis and Me” in the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.