Some things are harder to explain
My ancestors left the Roman Catholic Church and Ireland behind when they came to America in 1896.
Neither my mother, whose predecessors joined the Society of Friends after their passage to the states, nor my father, whose family showed no strong preference for any organized religion, attended church.
I became a Methodist by default when our next-door neighbors decided that I, at 9 years old, needed a church home and began taking me to services with them.
So, on the surface, it’s a bit hard to explain my fascination with aspects of the Catholic Church.
I’m pretty sure I was the only Protestant kid in Albia to own a pair of nun dolls, one attired in all-white and one in the more common black with a white wimple and black veil. My mom – at my repeated requests – bought them for me in Ottumwa, at a time when sisters at the convent still wore ankle-length habits.
Years passed, and I took an art history class in which I wrote a paper on the rich and politically powerful Medici family of Florence, the tie-in being that Cosimo the Elder was a great patron of the arts. Lorenzo was father and stepfather of two Medici popes – Giovanni (Leo X) and Giulio (Clement VII). Their family tales of money, murder and intrigue definitely had me hooked.
The Roman Catholic Church has 2,000 years of ritual and tradition – which I find enormously attractive. When I was an usher at a Methodist church, we would gather the collection and after placing it on the altar every week would recite the “Gloria Patri.” It gave me a feeling of connection with countless worshippers who had gone before me, as I repeated the doxology.
Although I am an outsider, I formed opinions – rightly or wrongly – about recent popes.
His 33 days as pontiff didn’t really give me much time to think about John Paul I.
I adored John Paul II; I felt he really loved people and wanted them to know it. He was fatherly and comforting.
I didn’t dislike the more scholarly Benedict XVI, but I never felt as warmly toward him. He reminded me of when my church brought in a new head pastor who was reputed to be a good administrator. I have never gone to church with the goal of being administered to.
I waited for what seemed like hours Wednesday after the white smoke was reported to find out who would be the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. I was quite out of patience by the time the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony.
I liked him instantly. I saw in his face what I was hoping to see, a kindly man who projected reassurance and deep spirituality.
My gut reaction was reinforced by his choice of a name.
I have admired St. Francis for as long as I can remember, a fact that can be attested to by visitors at my home. A small St. Francis statue watches over the flora and fauna in a corner of one of the flower beds, and a 4-foot sculpture of the Saint of Assisi – one that sometimes startles first-time guests – keeps watch outside the bedroom doors.
St. Francis was a rich man who became a servant to the poor and who heard Christ’s call to “rebuild my church.” At a time when the Catholic Church faces great challenges, I find the new pontiff’s choice of names perfect.
I am looking forward to the Pope Francis years, with all my Methodist heart.
Barbara Wallace Hughes is managing editor of The Messenger.