At the papal Mass a surprising faith, not in Catholicism but in love

     The view of the papal Mass from the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street. (Image courtesy of Bill Chenevert)

    The view of the papal Mass from the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street. (Image courtesy of Bill Chenevert)

    Despite my legitimate pope fatigue, I knew I had to experience Sunday’s papal Mass first-hand. It seems that I hate immigrant-shaming, the poverty that flourishes with greed, and wanton environmental destruction as much as Pope Francis. I’m also a queer feminist. It’s fascinating terrain to navigate; I had to give it a go.

    Despite my legitimate pope fatigue, after writing a few previews and reading weeks of Inquirer coverage, I knew I had to experience Sunday’s papal Mass first-hand. If not for myself, then for my mother, my aunt, my late grandmother — women who may not practice Catholicism to a T but … you know … love God.

    Plus the city had been enraptured for months by arguments about over-preparedness, zealous traffic blockages, and the suffering of a city and its citizens at the pleasure of a religion.

    It seems that I hate immigrant-shaming, the poverty that flourishes with greed, and wanton environmental destruction as much as Pope Francis. The tricky part? I’m also a queer feminist and, all weekend, had my ears tuned for signs of homophobia, misogyny, anti-abortion rhetoric and dogmatic devotion. It’s fascinating terrain to navigate; I had to give it a go.

    I’m glad I endured it all with an open heart. There were moments when tears wanted to come. And I walked home with a light heart that believed, foolishly perhaps for a moment, in the power of peace and love.

    Finding my place, literally

    Like so many others, I didn’t know if or how I would make it to the Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: Was my bag too big? Could I bring a camera or iPad? When was the best time to get through the checkpoints? Did I care enough to spend eight hours on the Parkway, or would watching on TV do?

    I approached City Hall and the 1500 block of JFK Boulevard in awe of the open streets, the multi-national hustle of vendors hawking T-shirts and Vatican City flags, the proselytizers pushing the much-maligned book that showed up on thousands of Philadelphia doorsteps, “The Great Controversy.” They mixed with faithful tourists from around the globe, homeless locals asking for food and money, and godless interlopers just curious to witness it all.

    After I realized that we would not get a Pope drive-by (the Jumbotron near Suburban Station showed him already coasting past the Rodin and Barnes museums), I made my way back to the Kimmel Center. I took off my hat out of respect and settled in on South Broad Street with a pad and pen, waiting for a literally religious experience and wondering if Francis would somehow renew a sense of faith in me. It almost worked — but not in the way the church would have liked.

    About love

    A charming group of parishioners from Vancouver, including the congregation’s priest, welcomed my chit-chat. Some had slept on inflatable mattresses in a Milford, Pa., church gymnasium. I got choked up when one woman called Philadelphia a beautiful and clean city with remarkable architecture and said that the people had been warm and wonderful.

    The t-shirts worn by another group nearby indicated that they were from Costa Rica, and a woman in front of me sat wrapped in a Mexican flag. English, Spanish and Vietnamese were spoken from the altar. The internationalism was remarkable.

    Just as it was when I was 8 years old at St. Christopher’s in Red Hook, NY, the devout knew the words to every prayer and response and song. I didn’t remember much of it, but the communal singing was contagious anyway. Add to it the bonkers production value of the Mass, and the music felt like a sweeping movie soundtrack. It was a vaguely satisfying production of high theater.

    The focus of Francis’s speech was primarily love, Jesus’ love specifically and, to fit into the World Meeting of Families framework, love in the home. My favorite moment from his homily was this one:

    “Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures… these little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love.”

    It was something we can all relate to, regardless of our religious beliefs. When it was time to offer the sign of peace, I was similarly moved. My neighbors bombarded me with double-cheek kisses, hugs and affection. Some barely spoke English but earnestly shook my hand and made eye contact.

    But that, of course, came after one robust barb aimed at same-sex love.

    The heartiest round of applause for Francis from everyone around me came when he said “[Our faith in the word of the Lord] invites those who want to share the prophecy of the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God!” I cringed. Nothing else he said during the Mass got such a strong reaction. it hurt.

    What if I’d brought my partner with me to explore this giant love fest? What if I’d looked more feminine? Would all of those faithful global citizens still have touched me and said “peace be with you” if they knew I was gay? How long will religious dogma in this country stand in opposition to the law of the land under the equal protections clause of the U.S. Constitution? I really don’t know.

    Hope finds its way in

    “The people’s pope” is a phrase I’ve heard tossed about. Francis is a phenomenon that only the most conservative Catholics are afraid of — bringing a freshness to the 1.2-billion-strong global religion, a step forward in at least feigning a sense of inclusiveness, social justice and moral evolution in the church. He’s said “Who am I to judge?” about gay clergy, and he has gestured toward a love of God that looks beyond Roman Catholicism as the one, true church. His emphasis on poverty and environmentalism is louder and heard more clearly than anything he says about dogmatic rules or strictures.

    Yet the self-determination of women, the dignity of LGBT people, and secular abortion rights — those things the church seems intent on judging.

    But the unwavering constant in most of Francis’ sermons and speeches has been a commitment to love and peace. As I walked away from Broad Street, there was something lighter in me, something that wasn’t there before. A strange feeling of hope came over me. Maybe there is more light than dark in the world, and perhaps my pursuit of a powerful love in my life hasn’t been in vain.

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