I Returned to the Catholic Church Because of Pope Francis

Pope Francis (Giuseppe Ciccia/Rex Shutterstock)
Pope Francis (Giuseppe Ciccia/Rex Shutterstock)

About once a year, on a family group text, one of my sisters or parents will inevitably ask: “So are we Catholic again?”

It’s the flippancy of the question, as much as its content, that betrayed how drastically my family’s identity changed over the years. My sisters and I were raised Catholic, and not casually: The church was my upbringing, and it was my foundation well into young adulthood. But over the years, something had changed. It wasn’t a group decision or a hard stop — over the years, we just drifted until we found ourselves so physically and philosophically separated from the church and from one another that our faith was no longer a safe assumption. I couldn’t name the last time our family went to mass together, even on Christmas or Easter. Catholicism ceased to become part of our conversations. Instead, we turned to more polite dinner table topics, like politics. Our former religion was reduced to a kind of passive-aggressive joke, frivolous enough to make over text message.

And I was one of the family members leading the charge. For years of my adulthood, I found no respite in the church hierarchy or community; I sought out Sunday morning ritual in the sanctuary of yoga and inspirational teachers outside the parish.

But recently, I came back to the flock. Here’s what happened.

Catholicism shaped my life

My parents weren’t born into the church. A conservative and Methodist growing up in Dallas in the ’60s, my father found refuge in the church’s antiquity, universality, and the mystery of transubstantiation in his adulthood. To him, it represented truth — the original home of teachings from which Protestantism and American faith were born, and a desire for a connection to this universal tradition. My mom, meanwhile, grew up Unitarian and relatively agnostic, but was drawn to the church because of its mystery and beauty; she was particularly moved after reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Because they were converts themselves, my parents applied the proverbial zeal in raising their children. By the time they had me, the firstborn, they had moved to New York from Dallas, married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, honeymooned in Rome, and convinced some of my aunt and uncles to convert as well. My sisters and I were given very Catholic names: Virginia, Mary, Regina, and Elizabeth. My godfather, Don Virgilio, was a monsignor in Pope John Paul II’s Vatican. Every Sunday, my parents heroically dressed four young girls for church and various Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes. They sat through decades of Christmas pageants, with only one of us ever getting to play Mary. I was most often a sheep.

When I left my parents’ house I went on to Fordham University, where my heart and mind were set on fire by the radical social justice teachings of the Jesuits. I led our Students for Solidarity group and attended church regularly, which is saying something for a college kid. Catholicism was my identity. It was our identity. And we never thought we’d doubt it.

Child abuse and the church’s role in a military dictatorship drove me away

The shift away from the church happened around 2007, a few years into the papacy of Benedict XVI, as we watched the church retreat into itself amid an ongoing sex abuse scandal and cover-up. It was difficult to stay faithful to a church that had closed its gates in a time of crisis, that began to litigate just as its people were hurting and needed it most.

The word catholic, after all, means “universal” and “one.” It describes the 1.2 billion of its faithful, not the institution itself. What I felt during Benedict XVI’s tenure was a sense that doctrine and historical customs were the Vatican’s preferred solution to the pains and doubts of Catholics worldwide, when what we really needed was to be reminded of the totality of its unconditional love.

I was living in Argentina at the time (when Pope Francis, then Jorge Bergoglio, was the archbishop of Buenos Aires), and while already reeling from the church’s response to the abuse scandal, I began to study how the church had behaved during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” From 1976 until 1983, a reactionary military dictatorship ruled Argentina. The dictatorship was responsible for a number of atrocities — murder, torture, and the “disappearance” of roughly 30,000 “leftist sympathizers,” including many Catholics and even clergymen. But the church hierarchy of the time often sided with the dictatorship, whose fight against communism was purportedly carried out in the name of “Christian civilization.” Some church officials went so far as to offer false confessions to the “disappeared” and then relay any potentially incriminating testimony to the military.

The whole church was not complicit, of course, and the recent light shed on Pope Francis’s role in these events shows the complexity and confusion that surround that period in Argentina — but the more time I spent there, the more I witnessed the close and ongoing alliance between upper-class conservatives and the church establishment, and the more I found a bitter taste in my mouth.

After a year in Argentina, I stopped going to church entirely.

At the same time, my family became disjointed. My parents separated. My sisters and I had all left home or were leaving for cities around the globe. When we were home visiting, we no longer arranged our time around the Sunday mass schedule, instead seeking our truth elsewhere. We avoided anything that had a whiff of hypocrisy.

I replaced faith with political activism

For me, finding truth elsewhere meant finding a different kind of home in politics and in the candidacy of Barack Obama. In 2006, one of my best (Jesuit-educated) friends sent me a copy of Dreams From My Father, then-Sen. Obama’s memoir. I couldn’t put it down. His honesty, prose, and self-reflection were unlike any I had seen in a politician; his years spent on the South Side of Chicago in organizing in Catholic churches caught my attention. His compassion for others and understanding of injustice — drawn from personal experience — guided his interest in politics and felt to me like the real deal (and, I would argue, it still does). I started paying attention to Obama’s candidacy from abroad, and in September 2008 I moved back to the United States to volunteer for him in Colorado without a dime. A version of faith, one could say.

In the 2008 and the 2012 campaigns, I found an organization dedicated to empowering its people and providing an opening to the political process. In candidate and now President Obama, I found a leader who embodied what I had loved about the church and my Jesuit education: the notion that by loving our neighbor, seeing our similarities instead of our relatively smaller differences, and coming together, we will in fact change the world. We didn’t have to accept things the way they were; rather, it was our responsibility to question and make those things better. The Obama campaigns felt to me like the truest articulation of people over politics, of love over power — and after my falling out with the Catholic Church, they restored my faith in leadership and the potential for institutions to evolve.

Click here to read more.

Gillea Allison

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *