Dressed as Pope John Paul II for Halloween, 1978.
By James Lopata
I have a photo of me dressed as Pope John Paul II from 1978.
Sometimes I laugh when see it. Other times, not so much.
It was a great time to be Catholic then. In the vibrant post-Vatican II parish where I was raised, we sang, we danced, we waved daffodils and launched multi-colored balloons at Easter. There was a spirit moving all over.
It strikes me as funny that, as a baptized Catholic male, I am technically eligible for the position of pontiff, even though I haven’t attended Mass in several years.
Funny, yes, but even more, sad.
The desire to have much of anything to do with the Catholic Church that I loved so much has departed. I know I am not alone. According to the Holy See's own statistics, there are millions of lapsed Catholics all over the world.
Using the Vatican's Statistical Yearbook of the Church, Catholic News Service noted that although the total Catholic population is up 29 percent from 1990 to 2010, confirmations are up only 10 percent, and first communions are actually down 5 percent. These figures demonstrate that the faith is in global retreat.
Catholics are absenting themselves from the life of the Church in the millions, but the Vatican still keeps them on record, which makes the population appear robust. In fact, I am one of the 1.2 billion people the Vatican officially counts as a Catholic. Why? Because I was baptized in a Catholic Church and was never excommunicated.
The Church is changing, even if the current pope emeritus does not seem to agree.
As a young priest active at Vatican II, Benedict XVI was considered by many to be a liberal voice. When asked many years later to account for how conservative he had become, he famously quipped, "It is not I who have changed, but others."
I don't get asked much anymore why I left the Catholic Church. To those in the circles in which I run the answers need no further articulation — the way the Vatican handles woman, nuns, life issues, and LGBT issues (I happen to be gay). But on the occasions when the question is asked, I often respond that I never left the Church, the Church left me — and many others as well.
One Easter, a few years back, I decided to try and recapture a bit of my childhood Catholic Easter joy. So I suited up, picked a daffodil, and, on a brilliant sunny morning, I strolled over to St. Thomas Aquinas near my apartment in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Inside this cavernous, grand, old Catholic Church, which could probably hold a thousand or more, sat maybe twenty people. The priest hailed from across the sea and spoke with a thick accent and broken English. Singing was kept to one verse per song and the psalm was spoken. No dancing. No balloons. Not much in the way of smiles either. The resurrection never felt so dead.
I couldn't leave Easter this way. So I hoofed it over to a nearby Episcopalian congregation, St. John’s. The contrast could not have been more jarring. Standing room only, families, children, people of all races, backgrounds, economic backgrounds, and sexual orientations laughed and sang and waved balloons and daffodils. Oh, and there was a woman priest.
I stood in the back and tried to hold back my tears so that those squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder by me wouldn't notice.
This is what we've lost, I kept thinking to myself. This is what we could have had. This is Easter. This is the resurrection. This is what we Catholics are missing.
When the cardinals gather to choose a new leader this week, I would like them to hold these contrasting images in mind. If they want a truly dynamic, and, well, conservative candidate for pope, then they might want to consider a lapsed Catholic, a woman, a nun, or maybe even a gay person like me.
Many of us would like to conserve what the Church had and bring it back — back to 1978.
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