Almost two years ago today I was tidying my living room and had CNN on the television for background noise. I’d heard a few days before that the Pope had died, and evidently this day was his funeral. I was mildly curious about him and the process for finding the next Pope after his death. My rock-solid atheism had started to erode, and for the first time in my life I was curious to hear more about religion and people who believed in God. Something about it all was nagging at me. For the first time, I felt like maybe it was I who was missing something.
I happened to glance up as CNN rolled a video montage they’d put together of one dignitary after another arriving at the Vatican. Back-to-back two-second clips showed Bill Clinton walking up to shake a Vatican official’s hand; then Tony Blair; then King Abdullah; then Nelson Mandela; then Prince Charles; then George H. W. Bush; then Jacques Chirac; then Kofi Annan; then Vicente Fox; and on and on. I called my husband and told him to turn on the television, “You’ve got to see this, ” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” I found out later it was the largest gathering of statesman in world history, exceeding even the funeral of Winston Churchill (see this link for a full list of the heads of state who attended).
As I watched clip after clip of dignitaries of various races dressed in a wide variety of clothing walk confidently up to greet the cardinal, I was fascinated. “What’s going on here?” I thought. It was just amazing to me that this religious institution that had existed for two thousand years, that had lasted even as empire after empire collapsed around it, was still able to draw the full attention of the world when its leader died. As my husband and I sat on the couch and watched the live coverage from the Vatican later that evening, I mused out loud, “The Catholic Church really has something going on there, I just can’t figure out what it is.” I could have never guessed that I was on the brink of finding out just how much the Catholic Church has “going on”.
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