Jewish World Review April 20, 2005 / 11 Nisan, 5765
Hope and comfort arise in a pillar of smoke
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
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.
JWR contributor Linda Chavez is President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her latest book is "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)