Watching the white smoke pouring from the Vatican chimney announcing the election of Pope Benedict XVI brought a lump to my throat. Habemus papam. We have a pope. The words gave comfort and meaning, a sense of community with more than a billion other souls around the world. I can’t say I remember feeling the same on Oct. 16, 1978, when Pope John Paul II was elected. Who knew at the time that he would become such a great leader, not only of the Catholic Church, but of the world? But then the world itself was a different place than it is today — and in many ways, I was a different person.
In 1978, like many of my generation, I was a fallen-away Catholic who had married outside the Church and who attended Mass only on holidays. Ironically, the Church, which had been such a major influence in my early life, seemed ever more remote to me the more it tried to adapt itself to the modern world. The reforms of Vatican II, which introduced vernacular languages into the celebration of Mass, and encouraged ecumenicism and an increased role for the laity, ironically actually drove me farther away from the Church.
I missed the Latin, the ornate sanctuary with its lifelike statues and crucifix, the Gregorian chant and ethereal hymns I grew up with, “the smells and bells” as some have mockingly referred to the incense and bell-ringing that were once an integral part of the liturgy. The new “folk masses” resembled “hootenannies” more than a solemn religious celebration of the Eucharist. The new hymns sounded like bad pop tunes, expressing the same feel-good sentimentality found in New Age books. And priests in golf-shirts and nuns in sandals failed to inspire me or, as it turned out, many vocations among the young either.
Whether it was just growing older, my increasing political conservatism or Pope John Paul II’s steadfastness on important issues that inspired my return to the sacraments, I can’t say for sure. But eventually I found something lacking in what otherwise seemed a full life, and I returned to the Church.
I still cringe when my local parish choir sings spiritual ditties that sound like they belong in a revival of “Hair” or when the homilist sounds like he’s taken his inspiration from the most recent version of “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” instead of the Gospels, but then I can always find consolation in the fact that the pews are mostly full on any given Sunday. I keep hearing that the Catholic Church in the United States is in trouble. But you wouldn’t know it from the churches I attend, not just in Northern Virginia, where I live, but in parishes around the country that I drop in on when I’m traveling.
The day after Pope John Paul II died, I visited a parish in Herndon, Virginia, to attend a late afternoon Mass. I sat in the back, like I usually do, and marveled at the crowd. It wasn’t just middle-aged people like me, but young people — married couples with children, giggly teenage girls attending with their friends, and boys and young men, many of whom came alone, not dragged by parents. I’ve been to packed churches in the middle of the summer on an Indian reservation and to standing-room only crowds in tourist towns from Grand Lake, Colo., to Palm Beach, Fla. Maybe church attendance is down — I keep reading it is — but I haven’t seen it. Indeed, the churches seem every bit as full as they were when I was in grade school.
It’s hard to know whether Pope Benedict XVI will, over time, arouse the same adulation as his predecessor, but his election this week surely evoked awe and wonder. In an age of instant electronic communication, when whole books can be transmitted through the ether of cyberspace in a few seconds, the Catholic Church still chose to announce to the world a new pope had been chosen through white smoke emanating from an old-fashioned stove-pipe chimney. I can’t help but think that many people who watched the drama unfolding over the last few weeks at the Vatican will be inspired to return to church even if they haven’t been there in years. Maybe that will be Pope John Paul II’s most lasting legacy and a gift to his able successor.