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Article ID: 9150

VoxAcct: 206828

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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A Pagan on the Pope's Passing

Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: May 1st. 2005
Times Viewed: 8,575

What have I to do with this man?

This was the question as I roved among the articles flooding the papers. In practice I had almost nothing to do with him. Yet something in me gaped like a ruptured chasm. For a relative had written to me in her grief: "Watch yourself, Brandon... If you are not for God, you are against him..."

She didn't know I was Pagan. The "watch yourself..." was in her mind an admonition for her fellow Christian to stay the path. Nevertheless I felt upset for the rest of the day. After work I went to the onsen, or public baths here in Japan, to try to wash away the shame and fear and belittlement I felt.

As I quietly boiled in response to that email, in which she unwittingly declared me a mortal enemy, memories rose like bubbles recalling incidents rarely spoken of in family history.

My mother's side comes from Catholic Slovenia, and the relative who wrote me - my aunt - is especially devout. She would have become a nun had her father not solemnly declared, in one of his few confessions of religious feeling, "The Church has taken enough from me, I won't let it take my daughter too." Yet at the same time, her mother was so staunchly Catholic as to refuse to attend the wedding of her own brother because the bride was a Finn (i.e. not Catholic). My own mother, raised in Catholic schools, drifted away only because her priest refused to marry her to my father, a Lutheran (in the Catholic Church's eyes I was already born a bastard, let alone what it might feel about my religiosity now). In my family religious expression is rare, but at times fierce. I have only fragments of stories filtered through other relatives, but enough to know that secretly the sheep are also wolves.

Worrisome thoughts wondered what would happen if my aunt discovered my Paganism. But what surprised me was that, over and above the thoughts for my own fate, there was something else in my heart as I pondered the passing Pope. Here was a man who opposed nearly every issue I cared about, from contraception to the ordination of women. He did many great works, including helping to peacefully dislodge Communism in his native Poland. But spiritually he also led a hard-line conservative wing that, if political consequences were suspended, might prefer to see me bound to a stake. That wing also bred people like my aunt. I had reasons to feel resentment toward the fresh corpse. So what was this twang of compassion?

Another memory bubbled up. I recalled with fondness sitting in a cathedral in St. Paul. My eyes rounded the expansive chamber, every scuff of my feet sending an echo through the whole place, like the karma of a little act reverberating through the universe. Above the altar hung a statue of a hanging man, which was at once both decadently luxurious and the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. As people filed into the dim pews and afternoon mass was said, I didn't take Communion because I knew I was not welcome to do so. I had visited many other churches that year, as it was a particularly searching time in my Paganism, and they all invited me to their Communion. Only the Catholic Church did not. I respected and in fact appreciated that. For I knew that in the pages of a certain book it was quite clear, despite the white-washings of recent theologians, who belonged in the Church and who did not. I was an outside visitor and I was treated as such, rather than welcomed with patronizing "tolerance."

The Catholic Church has been no "Buddy Jesus, " as the movie Dogma jokingly put it; neither to members who cry for more leniency on controversial issues, nor to me when I dared explore inside its vaulted chambers. Why do I salute it for its rigidity, especially when my own opinion favors a Taoist-like "bend that ye may stand" principle? Perhaps it is because the Church is not Taoist, nor Pagan, nor anything else attempting to appeal to me - it is un-apologetically Catholic. John Paul too was un-apologetically himself. He was no "Buddy Johnny." He fought forcefully for what he believed in, though he was not on my side.

A similar feeling sprouted recently as I perused the letters of Paul (what a surprise it was when a spirit helper of mine said she enjoyed studying the Bible - okay, as a devotion to you I'll open the book). I followed the drama of a man struggling to build a community of faith, standing up for what he believed in despite imprisonment and many rivals. My feelings toward Paul paralleled my feelings toward John Paul: I agreed with less than five percent of his opinions, yet I felt a kinship with him as a firm, brave, and struggling soul who dared to give a damn.

I don't mean to paint the deceased Pope into a saint. Much less do I mean to invoke some strange syncretism of his faith and mine. What I do mean to say is that there is such a thing as noble opposition, respect for the other, and it is not only Christians who may "love their enemies." I can't say I wish John Paul had lived forever, but I can say this Pagan mourns that he must, like all eventually must, go back to the Great Mother. May he meet her with the words, "Abba, Abba!" (Father, Father!) on his lips.

As for my aunt, I eventually remembered that people in my family consider her a bit extremist. She's no saint, but I've also had many good times with her. If she knew I was Pagan, would she still let me play with her children? Honestly, I don't know. A good heart is easily eclipsed.

Her email made me feel daggers approaching from the shadows, like an iron maiden closing around me. I publish my essays and poems in my own name, and for the first time I felt a twinge of fear for being so brazen.

Yet as I floated in the hot bath, contemplating my fear, I noticed there was also respect. Of all my relatives, she is one of very few I consider to have any substantial faith. Unlike the faith in which I was raised, whose Lutheranism was like a limp handshake, a non-experience for me, her faith is tangible. When I consider other relatives, for whom religion is a non-question, I cannot relate to them. It is mainly with my aunt that I feel a kinship of souls.

"I humble myself every day, " she wrote. Well, auntie dearest, I don't think so. But I know that you do struggle. And you struggle for what you think is right, even if it one day leads you against me.

In the heat of the turbulent bath, bubbling like primordial waters, I felt a tinge of compassion for...

Afterthoughts: The Pope and Japan

Seeing as I am here in Japan, I thought you all might be curious what the Japanese think about all this. That question was in fact the one that sparked the fated dialogue with my aunt.

There are few Christians in Japan. Most are Buddhist and/or Shintoist, if they have any specific sentiment at all. Yet Japanese are talking about the Pope. One friend told me that since Japanese are not Christian they do not view him with any special holiness, but they do respect and mourn for him as a good man. Another told me that they remember a certain speech he gave, in which he expressed a special sympathy for the only nation forced to live through a nuclear attack.

So Japanese are talking about it, though not with the lamentation one expects from devout Catholics. "A good man who worked for peace." That's as much as I've heard.

Copyright: copyright 2005, Brandon


B. T. Newberg

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

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