When I was in the second grade, one of the nuns at the school I attended died. Sister Esthela, my teacher, thought it would be a great idea to take a bunch of 7-year -olds to the convent to pray for her soul. She marched us up the hill—where the convent sat quietly overlooking the school— and into the chapel, straight to an open casket surrounded by white candles. It was my first time staring at a dead body, and I couldn’t help noticing she looked like one of those Egyptian mummies in my social studies book; her brown skin stretched and dry; her thin lips sown together in an eternal grimace. One thing was certain: the convent’s undertaker was no Bonasera. It was the most terrifying thing I’d seen in my short life, and while some of my tiny colleagues cried, prayed, stared down in shock, or ran out of the chapel screaming, I burst out in laughter. Sister Esthela considered crying, praying, staring and screaming acceptable behaviors in the eyes of God, but laughing was the equivalent of being possessed by Satan. The poor woman had devoted her life to God, but zero seconds to child psychology. She dragged me out of the chapel while reciting a litany of the evils that would befall me for not paying the proper respects to the dead nun and at that moment I knew I was going straight to hell.
Like every catholic, I feel guilty about a lot of things I do that may or may not qualify as a sin. Typification is irrelevant because the feeling of guilt is always there. For example: believing that my used stuff is fit for Good Will, rather than the trash can; lying about my schedule to avoid a boring plan/friend/relative; pretending I didn’t see someone to avoid small talk; enjoying someone’s train-wreck of a life on Facebook; passive-aggressive bullying; offering false compliments; secretly loathing people I spend time with; donating to the local food drive that can of baked beans I’ll never, ever use; offering help while hoping for rejection; feeling sorry for Amish people; shutting the door on Jehovah's witness' faces; lying to Girl Scouts selling cookies; and many others things I’ll remember as soon as I publish this piece. For more than 2000 years, the genius of the Catholic Church has resided in its ability to make its followers feel guilty about everything, all the time, and it is not limited to “abled” people. A quadriplegic can sin if he sets his mind to it. Sin if you do and sin if you don’t. Because you also sin by O-M-I-S-S-I-O-N, that means, I also feel guilty for not doing thousands of other things, such as: helping the poor; giving more money to the church; giving any money to the church; volunteering for the school bake sale; visiting my grandmother at her retirement home; visiting my father at his retirement home; visiting old people I’ve never met; rescuing Syrian refugees; adopting South American children for 19.95 a month; adopting children, period; adopting a pet; adopting a street; feeding the homeless; giving rides to random people on the street when it’s 10 or 103 degrees (assume rapist/murderer); dumping my change in Salvation Army buckets; and not displaying acceptable behavior during funerals. I probably sinned three times while writing this paragraph.
I always carry this nagging feeling that I should go to church more. It intensifies when a cough lasts for more than 2 weeks (assume terminal cancer) or when my teenage kids don't come home on time on a Saturday night. I confess: I’ve been a bad, bad Catholic for a while and very few things about the Church move me. The Church has been in so much trouble for the past 20 years that I, like many, stopped following the leader. When Benedict resigned I was like: “Oh! Ok. Meh!” When the media started pushing “Papabili” I was like: “Oh! Ok. Meh!” So, a couple of weeks ago, when I got an alert announcing "White Smoke", I anxiously tuned in to watch the announcement of the chosen one. As my ears strained to make sense of the French cardinal's slurred Latin, I thought I heard the words "Geh-or-geh" followed by “Pergolio”, or “Pergola”, or maybe it was just “Pergo”. It was hard to determine if the cardinal’s gibberish was about canopy styles, flooring, or an excerpt of “The Name of the Rose” (in my defense, the cardinal sounded like he had a little bit too much of the house wine). As I sat in front of my computer watching the live video from the Holy See, his name was pronounced: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina. I leapt in joy! A Pope from the Americas! To me it sounded ab-so-lute-ly-Pope-a-licious! As the days of the announcement passed and news of Pope Francis’ antics came to light, I felt a stronger connection to the faith, one that I had lost a long time ago. The man paid his hotel bill, personally called to stop his newspaper delivery, blessed a guide dog, stepped out of the pope mobile to bless a crippled man in the crowd, caught and kissed a million flying babies, and almost fell on his face. I saw the humanity in this man. This man is not God, this man is ordinary, like me (well, much better than me). Maybe this is what the church needs, what I need: a human Pope; a man who recognizes he is flawed, he needs prayers, he needs blessings, he needs understanding and patience from his flock. A flawed flock, a flock of sinners who want to believe there is no hell and God loves them. A God that doesn’t mind little girls laughing during funerals.
I think I sinned again by saying the Pope is Pope-a-licious and comparing him to me. How many Our Fathers is that?
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