Local view: New pope must make the church relevant

When the cardinals gather to select a new pope they should choose someone capable of making the Church more relevant. I say this as a former Catholic seminarian who first realized the necessity of having a more engaged pontiff following my own re...

When the cardinals gather to select a new pope they should choose someone capable of making the Church more relevant.

I say this as a former Catholic seminarian who first realized the necessity of having a more engaged pontiff following my own religious epiphany decades ago during this same Lenten season. I did not speak in tongues, have a vision or receive miraculous healing. Rather, it began in church, specifically midnight Mass at the start of Easter.

The church was dimly lit, the pews packed with adults and children, and a few mothers holding sleeping babies. It had been an especially long Lent during which I gave up smoking cigarettes, a resolution more difficult since I couldn't enlist my parents for motivation or reward, their having never known I started in the first place. It was still the era when many Catholics fasted, so I was counting the minutes and stomach growls until the late-night feast of roasted ham followed by cheesecake later on at home.

With a flick of a switch, the church went dark except for the lighted candelabra held aloft by the altar boys on either side of the priest in the vestibule of the church. Slowly they began marching up the aisle, led by the shortest altar boy, in black robe and white surplus, who was swinging back and forth a brass chain, clipped to the thurible and from which wafted the sweet and salty smoke of smoldering wood resin. At short intervals, the procession paused, as the priest chanted the opening Mass prayers in Latin, a cappella. The effect was a sorrowful monotone, as when a crowd at a sports arena intones an opposing player's name.

The smell of incense, the Gregorian chant, the candlelight in the dark and silence: It all made for delicious tension.


At precisely midnight, the priest and his entourage arrived up front at the altar. It was official: Lent was over; Christ was risen.

The priest sang the first line of Gloria in Excelsis Deo, cuing the house lights as the enormous bell in the church tower began to ring. Organ music, finally, cascaded from the choir loft, reverberating so powerfully inside my chest and my head that it burst from my skin in the form of goose bumps.

When it finished, I felt I had been part of something extraordinary. And the faces of everyone around me radiated the same rapture.

For some time after that, I actually looked forward to Mass. But things changed. Something different was in the air. In the late spring of 1966 our suburban church had a giant apron with wide steps rising gradually to the entrance, a space meant for clusters to congregate before and after services. And all the conversation before Mass was about the new Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King's plans to march through American cities.

I had watched Martin Luther King and his marchers being arrested on TV. Now they would descend upon our neighborhood, and the folks on the steps vowed a hostile reception. It was clear that for many, the "colored" were not welcome, and they planned to show them by amassing a human blockade on the planned route. Mothers would keep children indoors, and a few fathers planned to leave baseball bats on the floor in the back seat of their cars, just in case.

I was not surprised by what they said, since this was where I was raised. But I do remember ruminating over how being religious for many adults seemed not to be about living like Christ or loving mankind, as we were taught in Catholic school. Apparently it was just ceremony and music and special effects. It was theater. It made them feel good about themselves, as it did for me previously on Easter. It meant believing in the virgin birth or the second coming and avoiding porn and gays and abortions and "religiously" donating every Sunday.

The loudest ones on the steps considered themselves devout if they vociferously defended Church laws and showed no tolerance for anyone who did not. To them, hatred was not a contradiction. Hate, in fact, was sacred fervor against anyone who did not share the same values, skin color or religion.

The parish priests said nothing in their sermons to disabuse the "faithful" of that kind of thinking. And no one in Rome pled with them to do so.


This late winter, the process of electing a pope will involve great ceremony and history. And cardinals will follow tried-and-true tradition.

But contemporary storms such as the drive for gender equity, the Christian-Islamic cultural war and the priest sex abuse scandal all demand a different course and a different kind of captain. It's even more important now than it was in the aforementioned era of civil rights and sexual revolution to have someone less like a cloistered monk and instead more like the man who implored mankind to "love thy neighbor as thyself."

It's hoped the cardinals see it that way, too.

David McGrath of Hayward is emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and is the author of "The Territory." Contact him at .

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