I didn’t intend to watch much of Pope Benedict’s arrival to the United States: it was during my kids’ naptime — my one chance for free time in the whole day — and I had many other things I needed and wanted to be doing. And yet, there I sat. For about an hour. I’d never thought about it in detail before, but when I felt a sting of tears in my eyes as the jet safely touched ground, I realized just what an impact Pope Benedict XVI has had on my life and my conversion. To understand why, a bit of background is needed:
The beginning of my religious conversion was a lonely time for me.
I’d spent my whole life as an outsider to Christian circles, and it was hard to imagine that I could ever be comfortable being “one of them,” the people whom I had firmly categorized in my mind as “other.” I’d come to believe in God on an intellectual level, yet I felt stuck, unable to move forward from there. I’d known many Christians in my life, of course, but had never shared that part of their lives with them. It made me feel out of my element to even contemplate doing so.
I had this lingering impression that Christians and Christian culture were different from anything I knew. In my house growing up, the climate was one of a love of learning and reason, of wonder at the universe based on science and facts. As early as elementary school my dad would read books like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to me at night; when Halley’s Comet was visible we drove ten hours to get to the best place to view it, and stood in the cold for hours, just gazing in awe at the sky; we’d visit our astronomer friend and look with great interest at the latest meteorites he’d collected, animatedly discussing the mysteries of the universe over dinner. There was a strong, distinct culture of wonder based firmly on the foundation of reason. On the rare occasions that the topic of religion came up, it was only to note that it was a shame that people let superstitious dogmas hold them back from the fearless pursuit of truth.
Ironically, it was this very idea of fearlessly pursuing truth that led me to Christianity. As I’ve said before, I didn’t have a “personal encounter” with Jesus or a thunder-and-lightning conversion experience. I just did some research and thought it was true. And yet, that left me in a strange position. I had no idea how one gets to “know” God — how can you know someone you can’t see? I didn’t understand what it meant to “have faith” — did that mean setting all reason aside and believing all sorts of dogmas without question?
Many of the great Christian authors helped me gain an understanding of these concepts, yet one stood out from the rest. There was one author whose writing had a very familiar ring to it, whose way of thinking reminded me of the people I knew growing up, who built a bridge to unite in my mind the intellectual culture of atheism and the intellectual culture of Christianity:
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, whom we now know as Pope Benedict XVI.
Once I made the decision to become Catholic I figured I might as well find out more about our current Pope. I was aware that he was an academic who’d published many books, so I started to learn more about his writing. It didn’t take much reading to feel an instant connection to this Pope. An example from a speech he gave in 2005:
From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason…Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a ‘sub-product,’ on occasion even harmful of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal…In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational. [Thanks to Wikipedia for the excerpt]
Though I’d read work by other Christians who laid out logical, reasonable cases for their beliefs, there was something about Pope Benedict’s particular style that reminded me of the people I knew growing up. Many times I thought that if my father and his scientist friends were to become believers and write books about why they believed, this is what it would look like. When I read his encyclicals, excerpt from speeches and books like Journey to Easter and Jesus of Nazareth, I didn’t feel so lost in the Christian world anymore. I learned what it means to have faith, and that faith and reason go hand in hand. I learned that the zeal for knowledge and truth that I’d seen in my nonreligious upbringing could not only be found in Christianity, but was in fact one of its defining characteristics.
My new home started to feel as comfortable as my old home.
I’ve often quipped to my husband that Pope Benedict would make a good atheist. Not just because of his emphasis logic and reason and insistence on looking at the evidence that supports his faith, since that is a hallmark of many great Christian thinkers, but because of a certain je ne sais quoi that I recognize from the world of intellectual atheism. I see in him a particular combination of wonder based on reason, an ability to convey his passion for his beliefs without even appealing to emotion, and a completely fearless pursuit of truth that I’ve always seen in many of my atheist friends and family members whom I admire.
As I sat in my living room yesterday, watching the light of Shepherd One slowly grow brighter as it neared the American airport, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for our Pope. I’ve heard the term “JPII Catholics” used to describe the generation of people who were inspired by the great Pope John Paul II. I think I’m a “BXVI Catholic.” This Pope has spoken to me in a way I never thought a lifelong believer could, and has inspired in me an excitement about my faith that I never thought possible. When I saw him step off the plane, it was with deep emotion that I welcomed to my earthly home the man who helped welcome me to my spiritual home.