I was raised in two religions. Everyone is. There are always gaps, some greater than others, all infinite, between ‘God’ and any human articulation about God.
The two religions I was taught were both the Roman Catholic faith, in the years immediately before Vatican II.
The first religion, which affected me deeply, told me about Baby Jesus and the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and singing angels and saints who could fly and heal. It was big on mercy and love and forgiveness. This was accompanied by the mystery of the Latin Mass, which I served at the altar. It was a rich and sensual religion, and I remember volunteering to serve funeral Masses, not only because I wanted to get out of school, but because I loved holding the censer and watching the smoke rise up from the coals, inhaling deeply.
And miracles were not just long ago and far away. The nuns told us about Fr Solanus, who had lived down the highway in Detroit and healed people and bilocated and read hearts and was also a Tigers fan, like us.
It was a religion rich in mystery, and one incident, when I was maybe ten, illustrates this vividly. I was getting ready to serve at a parish mission, run by Capuchin friars from Fr Solanus’ monastery. I was preparing candles in the sacristy when I looked out the window, which opened onto the twilit parish cemetery. Just then a friar, cowl up, head down, strode past, reading his breviary, silhouetted against the graveyard. It was spooky and impressive, like all good religions.
This religion also introduced me to Mother Mary, whom I loved, as every Catholic child did. I knew that she, and her Son, loved me, and I loved them too. I used to say that I only came to love Jesus when I ran to him at 23, scared to death of evil and sin, needing salvation. But in fact I always loved Jesus, not that he was always central in my thoughts or I tried to do what he said, or even what the Ten Commandments commanded. But I loved him.
His father I was not so sure about. He was the guy Who slew and struck down and smote.
The other religion, as articulated by the Sisters of St Joseph at St Agnes school, told us a lot about this ‘God the Father’, about how He was just, so just that even if we were really really sorry for disobeying our parents or stealing candy or touching ourselves He was not satisfied until we had suffered enough to satisfy His perfect Justice. This was going to be our fate after we died, because hardly anyone had suffered enough to satisfy Him on this earth. Furthermore, in this religion Baby Jesus and the Sacred Heart were replaced by a more pissed-off Christ, the one who is our Judge. However, there was hope. Besides the fact that Mary, who loved us, could intervene, like any mother, and soften her Son’s Heart, the saints had accumulated even more merit than they needed to get into heaven and the Church had a sort of bank account of the surplus stuff. If we said certain prayers we could take time off of ‘Purgatory’ with the merit of those much holier than us. And so we did, racking up years and decades off of the horrible fiery place, which was presented as a sort of temporary hell. Me, I did not bother with such small potatoes, and went for the ‘plenary indulgences’, which were like a Get Out of Jail card from Monopoly, a game I heartily hated.
Somehow, in spite of this evil human construct, I still was impressed enough with the mysterious stuff to experience overwhelming awe when meditating (yes, that is the word) about God and eternity, sitting in church when I was seven, even though I felt guilty afterwards for not paying attention to the Mass.
I am still sorting out these religions, though I am beginning to sometimes understand the real one more clearly.
I am not picking on one version of traditional Catholicism. For this all was soon replaced by a very different Roman Catholicism, one with earnest people strumming guitars, with lively tunes and strange ideas. Which in fact were very powerful at first, but did not wear well. But as someone who actually sat by a campfire and sang ‘Kumbaya’, circa 1966, by a riverside near Toledo, on a vocational retreat at the seminary of a missionary order, I have to admit that it was moving.
The first time.
Nor was it so simple to separate the several Catholic religions: that night, lingering in the spare modern chapel, lit only by candles, the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, I profoundly experienced the presence of Jesus.
Every version of the Christian faith distorts the simple reality of God, adds human concepts and fear or reaction to fear.
And that is, perhaps, why I love this pope so much. He seems to never forget that at the heart of all else, before all human tradition or law or respectability there is Jesus, there is God.
And there is Love.