Does the new pope want us back?
I bet I’m not the only former Catholic in Boston asking that question amid the pomp and plumes coming from Rome.
I’ll admit to some heart fluttering when the white smoke appeared, and, almost in spite of myself, some hopefulness. Could this guy make the church a place where people like us might find a home again?
A first, good sign: Pope Francis does not appear to be the red-Prada-shoe type. You’ve got to love a guy who gives up the palace and the chauffeured limousine in favor of a modest apartment and the bus. Sounds like a certain sandaled archbishop we know well. The new pope cares about inequality, and he doesn’t mind speaking up about it, calling it a “social sin.”
That was the central principle of my Catholic upbringing in Australia. In my 12 years of Catholic schooling, given by progressive nuns who told us girls we could be anything we wanted, there was little time for discussions of homosexuality or abortion: We were too busy talking about poverty and persecution and what we would do about it.
It was the early 1980s, and the sense of a new, unfolding church after Vatican II was still palpable, if already diminished by the deeply conservative — dare I say Francis-like — successors to the immortal John XXIII. But for the girls of Mary MacKillop High, the summons to engagement was still clearly audible.
How distant from those times the official church seems now, and how remote from so many of us. Faced with sexual abuse allegations, church bigs chose their own corrupt shepherds over their abused flock. Some did worse. Instead of falling to their knees and begging for forgiveness, they denied the problem or moved sick priests into spots where they abused more children. Some of those same cardinals were at the conclave, choosing the man to lead the church from the mire they made.
Since I left school, the official church has steadily receded from the one I knew: It grew obsessed with sexual morality, with snuffing out liberation theology, and with reining in my beloved nuns, the soul of the whole enterprise. If only they’d brought the same vigor to the monsters who preyed on parishioners. I left.
It’s still unclear how much the new pope cares about bringing back people like me. Even if he does, it’s unlikely he could, judging from his background. Though he has been incredibly brave in standing up against economic inequality, he’s staunchly opposed to gay rights and is an absolutist on abortion.
Many Catholics who disagree with the official line on these matters tune it out and stay in the pews. But I am not big enough to forgive the hierarchy for the clergy abuse scandal. I am too angry at the way they have worked to hurt women and gays to ignore the official church in favor of the real one, which meets every Sunday in loving parishes all over Boston.
I am no Mary Jane Sullivan, who remains a devoted Sister of the Sacred Heart even as the men who speak for her church have lost sight of the values of tolerance and service she embraced after Vatican II. She believes in serving the poor and ministering to anyone who needs her. She believes priests should be able to marry, that the church should embrace gays and lesbians, that those who protected abusive priests should be punished.
I was asking her Wednesday if the church had moved further away from her since we met a few years ago. “I am the church,” she said, interrupting me. “We are the church. The church can’t move away from me.”
But she did allow that there seem to be many more people, both in the hierarchy and in places where the church has grown, who disagree with her now.
Three years ago, Sullivan told me she was sure the church would one day feel as it did right after Vatican II, that “when God is ready, he’ll send someone to blow the top off the place.”
She was less certain Wednesday.
“I don’t see it coming, much as I would like it,” she said. “But I am happy to be surprised by a John XXIII.”
So am I.