So the Pope is in town, with his Popemobile moving him from place to place and his massive throng of followers in its wake. I’ve never really understood the whole Catholic thing. I’ve never been a Catholic with a capital “C” and can’t say that I’ve ever really wanted to be.
My first experience with Catholicism came through a neighbor friend during my late elementary school / early middle school years. His name was Dave and we spent many a carefree afternoon tweaking our bikes by stripping off the pedals and greasing the bearings in the crank shaft. Tinkerers we were, yet somehow we always managed to get it all put back together right – and off we’d go. He invited me over to spend the night on New Year’s Eve one year and I remember his dad, a shortish, stocky man who resembled Steven Spielberg with a full beard, pulling out some really nasty tasting fish that we ate on crackers – apparently a tradition among those who belonged to his brand of religion. We then went to mass at St. Aloysius just down Enterprise Street in Bowling Green, Ohio. I’d never seen wooden pews with little green felt padded kneeling rails before and I took to playing with them almost immediately, bumping them up and down with my foot despite the glares from those who sat around me. When it came time to use them, I just went along with the crowd. Up and down. I missed every word the reverend spoke, instead using the time to glance around at all the people kneeling and standing in perfect unison. It was all so organized, and I never once had to crack open a bible. Not that I could have found one. I looked but found a book with a bunch of readings in it instead. I read along with everyone else when our parts came up, a hundred or so voices raised in a din of harmony and repetition. Everything felt so unlike my own religious experiences in the Pentecostal church; there was no pressure to be a certain way, no requirements to know this particular Bible verse or that particular hymn, no need to dress in clothes that felt dorky to a kid who rather enjoyed being casual, and no need to rush the stage in repentance before they’d let us leave. Instead there were the movements and motions and the time spent and that seemed to be enough for these worshippers.
The first time I ever got cussed out by someone of an authoritative nature happened at St. Al’s. I attended Scout meetings in their friendly confines and stood with my foot propped in the back door one evening waiting for an unexpected shower to lighten so I could run home. Some guy with the collar thingy on walked by and told me to “Shut the damn door!”
At my church, the pastor never swore.
Years later, after college and the wedding, after being an upstanding evangelical Christian became the modus operandi of my life, I met my best friend Blaine. He grew up Catholic, very Catholic as he will tell you, and converted to Christianity – became born again – after taking the time to read the Bible for himself. We talked a lot about the rituals and traditions of the Catholic faith, but even with his explanations and patience, I still didn’t quite get it. He said that was a good thing and I guess I must have agreed.
My first real lengthy tenure in radio ended when a local Catholic organization bought the dinky AM station I had worked at for over eight years. For a time before the sale, to feel the waters I suppose, they purchased airtime to carry the program Catholic Answers Live (which strangely enough we aired right after a decidedly anti Catholic program called Politics and Religion, proving the old religious radio proverb stating that if you had a dollar, then you got to holler) and I sat there listening to the broadcast with a detached skepticism. They took everything so seriously – things that seemed unworthy of such reverential consideration. Of course the same could be said about my group of believers as well, but they struck me as apples and oranges at the time. While we were concerned about things like eternal security and missionaries and all things Wesleyan, they went on and on about whether God really lived in the host and all the hoopla over Virgin Mary Sightings and whatnot like that. The stuff we Nazarenes cared about seemed to be more important and less trite. We were more Christian, while they were just more religious.
Now, it all seems equally mundane and silly to me. For so long, I let others decide what really mattered in my spiritual life. I studied the Bible, but never connected to people with any real honesty. For even as I tried to paint myself as someone who cared about people and could lend a compassionate hand, in the end it all came down to getting people to believe the same things I did, whether I really understood them or not. It’s easy to quote jo-blo Bible teacher or the Pope, but when all that stuff isn’t at the heart of what it means to be human we leave a wake of confused people still searching for the honest type of meaning to life – meaning that lasts and makes sense.
Much like the wake the Pope is leaving as he Popemobiles his way across America.