My Italian grandfather broke with the Catholic Church when he came to Durham. For someone born and raised in the Campania region, home to San Gennaro and Padre Pio, his secession from the church was especially complicated. It came about for many reasons, some real and some imagined, but he still displayed a tiny bust of Pope John XXIII on top of his television. He recited the Lord’s Prayer in Latin before every meal.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard Cokie Roberts say on the radio that, if the Papal Conclave elected an American as the next pope, the Italian news media would blame the CIA. “That’s about right,” I thought.
My grandfather was a brilliant and dashing iconoclast, bold and canny enough at age 47 to leave everything behind and move his whole family to the States. But in his final years, his mind was confused, meaning he frequently expressed suspicion and paranoia. With regard to politics and religion, there were only conspiracies; the Vatican was particularly vulnerable. “I tell you,” he said to me once, gravely, “the pope should never ski.”
But he never stopped reciting that familiar prayer in Latin before meals. It was the mantra of my youth. I can still hear him clear his throat and begin: “Pater noster,” he would say, “qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.” The language was melodic and mysterious, the words dancing in the air like a long spool of ribbon being unfurled.
When I heard last week that the pope had been chosen (“Habemus Papam!“), I was transported back to my grandfather’s dining room. He would have been so pleased that the new pope chose to honor St. Francis, defender of the poor and preacher to the birds. I wasn’t raised in the church, and I am not a regular churchgoer now. The closest I’ve ever come to a conversion experience, though, was in the Basilica at Assisi, staring at St. Francis’ tattered brown cloak. I admire his tradition of advocacy and commitment to social justice, later embodied by Catholic clergy members like Father Daniel Berrigan and Sister Helen Prejean.
I believe my grandfather would want Pope Francis to follow in those traditions and to act in the model of Pope John XXIII, who sparked change in an institution believed to be intractable. The church and its leadership were a paradox for my grandfather, who pushed them away while embracing things like the Pater noster. In my own struggles with personal feelings about organized religion, I am indeed his granddaughter. After all, the sound of him saying that prayer is the one I most wish I could hear just one more time.