I realized that I no longer belonged to the church as I made my way up to the altar, arms crossed tightly across my chest. I glanced nervously around, noticing some heads turned and stares directed my way. I imagined a door straight to Hell itself opening the second my feet touched the front of the church, but was met instead by a kind, smiling priest who laid his hand on my shoulder to give me a thoughtful blessing. On the way back, I didn’t even notice the eyes that were glued to my back.

Religion is not my thing. And this past April, I attended mass for the first time in quite a long time. Although Catholic, I have admittedly lacked a presence at church for the last nine years — unless, of course, you count watching “The Ten Commandments” on ABC every Easter.

In 2013, the daily news revolved around the reelection of a new pope. I watched as my deeply religious high school friends raved and frequently asked, “Who are they going to choose to lead the Church?” as if a “Dancing with the Stars” finale was approaching. Most days, after listening intently until I became lost, I went back to my turkey sandwich, uninterested and not willing to spark up yet another debate about religion.

At the time, I considered myself a “bad Catholic” for not being present at church on Sundays and for believing in things not condoned by the Church. Soon, I began to identify as a “nonaffiliate” and saw all church-goers as that one guy who stands at the corner with a megaphone screaming that we must all repent our sins or risk winding up in Hell.

I lost touch with religion because it was easy — easier than trying to explain that I was a “Catholic that is totally OK with (insert) and (insert) and (insert).” I never looked back too much on religion and began to enjoy my church-free, cartoon-filled Sunday mornings. That is, until recently, when I heard that Pope Francis would make a historic visit to the United States.

I tried to think back — Who was Pope Francis? All I had heard about our new pope over the past two years was that he was quite progressive. Not horribly, but enough to make me turn my eyes to the head of a Church I had all but abandoned.

So, I decided to find the answers to my questions. Along the way, my friend forwarded me an article from CatholicVote.org, which immediately caught my attention. It focused on the pope’s papal visit to bless AIDS victims and, because the most at-risk groups are homosexuals, I was preparing myself to find a harsh response in the text. What I read was surprisingly open and heartfelt, especially since it was coming from what my mind viewed as the most conservative person on the globe.

“God loves you all, without distinction, without limit,” he said. “He loves those of you who are sick, those who are suffering from AIDS and AIDS-Related Complex … He loves all with an unconditional and everlasting love.”

The pope’s further comments continued to provide support and blessing for all who have suffered greatly, welcoming those individuals into the heart of the Church.

I could feel my illusion of the Church cracking and shattering from its very foundations. Was all that I had thought about religion for the past couple years a lie? A new pope, one who could see the entire community, demonstrated an inclusiveness that the Church was always supposed to provide. Contemplating this big question, I returned from the excerpt only to find the shocking revelation that this description was not of Pope Francis, but Pope John Paul II. In the 1980s.

People think they understand what the Catholic Church is teaching, but when we see something we disagree with, it’s easier to back away than try to understand and search for answers. The Church is inclusive, and the pope embodies the unity of a congregation of people, all different yet viewed the same in the eyes of God. I had judged an entire religion based on my experience in one small church, in one small town; I had based my thoughts about the inclusion of all different kinds of people on matters I thought all Catholics believed in. I didn’t want to be a part of a church that seemed to close its doors to the differences found in all people.

In my search for answers and clarification, I found beautiful words and acts of kindness from Pope Francis himself during his trip to our country, most of which were not so different from those before him. Sure, Pope Francis might have what the the author Stephen White affectionately states a “family resemblance” to his predecessors, yet he takes on his teachings with an off-the-cuff air of lightheartedness filled with wisdom and humor. After arriving on American soil for the first time, he stopped to bless a young boy with cerebral palsy. And while reinforcing the virtues of family, he added in a light “I won’t speak of mother-in-laws” riff before launching into the teaching, capturing both attention and laughter.  

I believe, though, that Pope Francis will gain a recent and large following not only through his compassionate and inclusive nature, but also through his ability to inspire people to dream higher and live the lives we were meant to live. His teachings and words of wisdom can apply to all people, whether devoutly religious, completely nonreligious, simply on a break from church or anywhere in between. If wise and compassionate words are ever needed, look to to Pope Francis and his desire to motivate and give hope to every person on this planet.

“Sure, a person sometimes dreams of things that are never going to happen,” Francis said in a recent speech in Cuba. “But dream them. Desire them. Open yourselves to great things.”

Megan Mitchell can be reached umeg@umich.edu.

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