I was a young girl when I first visited the Vatican. The occasion was the Great Jubilee, and my most vivid memory is standing with an enormous crowd in St. Peter's Square, chanting "Juan Pablo Segundo! Te quiere todo el Mundo!" (John Paul II, the whole world loves you) I may have been too young at the time to really understand things like the Jubilee Indulgence or the significance of the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica, but the feeling of solidarity with other Catholics was strong. I imagine it was much the same last week when thousands of believers awaited the end of the papal conclave and the announcement of their new leader with the words "Habemus Papam" - we have a pope.
I have struggled with religion, particularly Catholicism, for a very long time. As a person who seems wired to reject authority, additional life rules mandated by an organized religion were never palatable. But more importantly, I've always felt that my questions about Roman Catholicism have gone unanswered, or haven't been answered adequately. There are the structural questions about the patriarchy and the institution of the church, but also deeper theological issues that I either cannot accept or cannot truly understand. Perhaps some people understand through faith and others never will?
But despite this, I respect religion - especially Roman Catholicism - as an institution, and people's freedom to believe and practice their faith is a fundamental requirement for a free society. I can't help but think that people who scoff at religion, who dismiss it as folly, who deride the "faithful," know only a part of religion. While it can be "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children. . . " (Hitchens), my hope is that in a free society, the competition of ideas will eventually eradicate the evil to make way for the good.
Just yesterday I asked a professor if he was pleased with the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio as the new pope. His response was simply, "Man proposes God disposes." That is an answer steeped in faith. Cardinals propose a candidate for the papacy, but God exercises control over and determines the selection -- there is nothing to be pleased or displeased about. The selection of the new pope brings back memories of the Jubilee in Rome, and while I often feel righteous in my faithless rationality, I do miss the feeling of solidarity and wonder if I'll ever have the ability to believe.