How Pope Francis Made It Safe for Me to Come Crawling Back to Church

What do Lisa Loeb, Deepak Chopra and Ancient Aliens have in common? In a rough year, none have been as reassuring as the religion I abandoned two decades ago.

It was in second grade that I first suspected I didn’t belong at St. Cecilia’s.

I was only 7, but when I looked into Sister Mary’s unfeeling eyes I knew, as clearly as only 7-year-olds can, that whoever she was working for wasn’t worth my Sunday morning. I brought my concerns to my mom, hoping for a quick “Jesus Loves You!” Band-Aid to ease the impending existential crisis.

Now, I realize this was a mistake. My mother is a wonderful, empathetic, kind-hearted woman, but comforting white lies aren’t really her strong suit. Santa died early in our house, and the Easter Bunny wasn’t far behind. The Tooth Fairy, well, she never stood a chance on Hoffnagle Street. This is what it sounds like when a child asks Joan if we’re floating on, all alone, through this vast, indifferent universe:

“How do you know God is real?”

“Well, I don’t.”

“Oh. Do you think he is?”

“I’m not sure.”

“So … where do we go when we die?”

“Nobody really knows.”

“Where did Smokey go?!?”

“He’s in the flower bed, honey. Now brush your teeth – Wings comes on at 8.”

I was sad to lose my religion. Not only because of the whole turning to dust thing, but because I was really, really good at being Catholic — especially at Catholic school.

Out here in the real world, success is admittedly elusive for me, a murky combination of charisma, talent, hustle and luck that I can’t quite decipher. When I really think about it, I’m not even sure what “success” means. Is it a lucrative career? A happy family? An interesting Instagram? I hope not, as I’m a divorced writer with a DVR full of Supernatural.

But in the Philadelphia Catholic school system, success came easy to me — almost too easy. What I lack in marketable skills, I more than make up for in what St. Cecilia’s and Cardinal Dougherty deemed valuable: sitting down, shutting up and memorizing lists. Lots and lots of lovely, lovely lists. If promotions were based on how neatly one filled in the Scantron, well, you’d be working for me, not reading about my dead childhood cat.

But I did OK. I went the next 20-some years only whipping out Hail Marys on bumpy flights, only calling upon the heavenly saints and angels when the occasion called for a particularly colorful curse. Save for weddings and funerals, I rarely stepped foot inside a Catholic church.

And then last year happened. In the grand scheme of years, it wasn’t notable. But in my tiny world, it was the kind of year that brings you to your knees, that seems somewhere between impossible and unimaginable to get through. I was seriously considering a tattoo of Lisa Loeb lyrics when I realized, Holy Saint Joseph and Mother of Mercy help me, that I had better find something bigger than myself, and fast.

I poked around my yoga mat for awhile, and even stayed after class for meditation. I read everything Deepak Chopra had to say about enlightenment, and then listened to his audio books just in case I missed something. But here’s the problem with pop culture zen: The line between cosmic consciousness and “Screw this charade we call reality, let’s go eat all the drugs in Ibiza” is pretty fine, and I never had great balance.

What I wanted was a hard pew. A half-assed responsorial psalm. A good talking to from Sister Mary. And a clear-cut rubric for getting on the Promised Land’s guest list.

I wasn’t reluctant to come crawling back to Catholicism because I lack faith. Some days I know there isn’t a God, some days I suspect that there is, other days I watch a lot of Ancient Aliens and look for hidden messages in the Metro crossword. But the great thing about Catholicism — especially the Northeast’s brand of Catholicism — is that it’s as much of a culture as it is a religion. If you show up to the beef-and-beer and toss in for the second collection like a sport, nobody asks too many questions while you figure out your adult-onset Lisa Loeb fixation.

What did give me pause was the church’s leadership, both in Philadelphia and in Rome. How could I find comfort in an organization that abused its most vulnerable, that had so little respect for women, that arbitrarily applied the rules of a dusty old book to people whose only real mistake was loving another human?

I’m not saying Pope Francis is the answer for Catholic Church — it’s racked up quite a few problems over the past 2,000 years, and at least for now, he talks a more progressive game than he seems willing to play. But the considerable compassion and thoughtfulness he’s shown has made me more comfortable on even St. Cecilia’s sadistic kneelers, and I’m happy and honored to welcome him to Philadelphia this fall.

Not that I’ll be in town when he stops by, of course.

Father, forgive me, but I can make $400 a night renting my place on Airbnb — and I’m not even sure I believe in the Big Guy yet.

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