Raised Catholic

I’ve never thought of compassion as a tenet of Catholicism. Until Pope Francis.

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Onitsha, Nigeria (Reuters)

As a child, I loved Mass, its swirl of music and rituals. My family went every Sunday to St. Peter’s, the Catholic chapel at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. It was full of perfumed people: gold pendants at women’s throats, their headscarves flared out like the wings of giant butterflies; men’s caftans crisply starched; children in frilly socks and uncomfortable clothes. Mass was as much social as spiritual—an occasion to greet and gossip, to see and be seen, and to leave consoled. I loved watching the priests sweep past, all certainty and majestic robes, behind the sober Mass-servers holding candles. The choir sang in Igbo and English, each song a little plot of joy. I loved the smoky smells, the standing and sitting and kneeling, the shiny metal chalice raised high in air charged with magic and ringing bells. The words of the liturgy were poetry.

I memorized the priest’s lines, and silently mouthed along at my favorite part: “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior.” There was something moving about this qualified hope, this hope so assured that it was wedged by joy. (Because of the raw power and drama of priesthood, I briefly wanted to be a priest. Nuns never interested me; they taught dull catechism classes and, unlike priests, always seemed mournfully timid.)

Tracing tiny crosses on my forehead and lips and chest before the gospel, bowing during a specific part of the Credo prayer, reciting responses to the priest as part of a single, larger voice, made me feel special, as though I had gained entry into an ornate cave of secrets with special codes and talismans—the copper rosary ring on a finger, the blue plastic miraculous medal around a neck.

On slow Sunday evenings, I sometimes went to Benediction, where I found the church sparse and dim with mysteries. The Latin hymns sung a cappella were achingly beautiful, and they seemed to me the sound of grace.

My teenage years brought a restless, searching skepticism. I was around 16 when I heard about the couple prohibited from receiving Holy Communion because their adult daughter had married a divorced (non-Catholic) man. This, according to the priest who banned them, was canon law. At communion, when others walked to the altar, I watched the couple kneel at their seats and bow their heads in what looked like shame. A devout couple, both wore scapulars around their necks. Communion was the glimmering, sacrificial center of Mass—it was the raison d’etre of Mass. Why would this couple be so severely punished for the actions of an adult daughter?

All this puzzled and angered me. I was full of questions, in a church that did not encourage questions. I turned to books to mend the holes in the fabric of my faith. I read about Church history, the Second Vatican Council, Liberation Theology. In the many Protestant vs. Catholic arguments we had at school, I was the dedicated Catholic apologist, spouting words I knew my adversaries did not understand: synod, magisterium, transubstantiation.

Those fights, unformed and childish, were legacies of the Irish Catholic and English Anglican missionaries who came to my ancestral Igboland in the late 19th century. They established a viciously partisan Christianity; intermarriage and socializing between Catholic and Anglican converts were almost taboo. The tensions faintly linger still. Even though I was forceful in my defense of Catholicism—I selectively quoted scripture that supported the sacraments, I made a case for purgatory—I did not always believe myself.

Gradually, the rites of Mass began to lose their sheen. It suddenly seemed arid and mechanical that the priests always read from a book. I saw how close to gaudy melodrama the majesties of Catholic rituals could be. I recoiled at how quick the Church was to ostracize and humiliate, how the threat of punishment always hovered, like a hard fist, ready to strike. The family of a man I knew was refused a Catholic funeral when he died—because he owed church dues.

I was alienated by the Church’s emphasis on money-collection, the swaggering power of priests, the heaving gap between doctrine and the lived lives of people. Here was a Church afraid of itself, of looking inward, which instead basked in hollow certainties.

I longed for more compassion, and less canon law. I tried attending Charismatic Renewal masses, a Pentecostal-like movement in the church that is frowned upon by the establishment. I lasted a few weeks, until I could no longer bear the sour-faced sanctimony of people who called Jesus their “brother” and had histrionic prophesies and believed trousers-wearing women were sinners.

Shortly afterward, I moved to the United States to attend college. I was curious about the American Catholic Church. I attended student masses, and enjoyed their guitars and informality and welcoming air, but it all felt light and under-dressed. For me, Mass meant incense and stained-glass windows and drama. So I attended a church with all three, where the priest spoke only about abortion—about how Catholics had to vote for politicians based on their abortion positions. I left before Mass ended. This, it seemed, was mainstream American Catholicism—endless political hectoring.

To be raised Roman Catholic is to be inducted into a culture that clings, that slides between your soul’s crevices and stays. It is a culture of guilt, but in my experience of Nigerian Catholicism, it is even more a culture of duty. Tribal duty. You do not question. You obey and agree. You do not acknowledge that the failings of the Church might stem from its institutional culture. You do not criticize the cult of priesthood. You insist that all flaws are individual—a few bad men doing bad things. You willfully blind yourself. What matters is the protection of the Church, this behemoth of many centuries.

I describe myself today as a person “raised Catholic” rather than a person who is “Catholic,” but I cannot think of myself as “non-Catholic,” even though the label would be technically accurate. After all, I disagree with most of the Church’s teachings and positions, and I hardly attend Mass. Yet remnants of my tribal duty remain: I bristle at unfair criticism of the Church by non-Catholics, I feel an instinctive discomfort about other Christian denominations, and I do not merely admire Pope Francis—I am proud of him. The pride of ownership. Our pope.

Pope Francis inspires me. Not because of his much-touted humility—other popes who went along with papal pomp might merely have been tradition-compliant rather than lacking in humility—but because of his humanity.

For the head of a religious institution that has historically traded in dispensing judgment to publicly say “Who am I to judge?” is a symbolic revolution. This is Pope Francis’s abiding achievement: He has changed the tone of the Church. I know of individual priests who show compassion and those who do not, but I have never thought of compassion as a tenet of the Catholic Church. Until Pope Francis.

The pope seems to value the person as much as the institution. He seems to acknowledge that human beings are flawed. He seems able to say that most un-Catholic of things: “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” suggests flexibility, room for knowing and growing and changing.

Because of him, I recently went to Mass, having not been for some years. The clunky changes to the liturgy made by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict, disappointed me—instead of responding “and also with you” to the priest’s “The Lord be with you,” the congregation now says the decidedly non-lucid “and with your spirit.” But the singing and the weight of tradition moved me. My skepticism softened a little.

l do not necessarily expect Pope Francis to make significant or quick changes to Church doctrine. Still, I cannot help but hope. Eighty years ago, my father attended a Catholic church in a small Igbo town where an Irish priest said Mass in Latin with his back turned to the congregation. Now priests face the congregation and say Mass in many languages. Change happened because of the Second Vatican Council. Change can happen again.