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How Pope Francis brought me back to the Catholic Church

About once a year, on a family group text, one of my sisters or parents will inevitably ask: "So are we Catholic again?"

It's the flippancy of the question, as much as its content, that betrayed how drastically my family's identity changed over the years. My sisters and I were raised Catholic, and not casually: The church was my upbringing, and it was my foundation well into young adulthood. But over the years, something had changed. It wasn't a group decision or a hard stop — over the years, we just drifted until we found ourselves so physically and philosophically separated from the church and from one another that our faith was no longer a safe assumption. I couldn't name the last time our family went to mass together, even on Christmas or Easter. Catholicism ceased to become part of our conversations. Instead, we turned to more polite dinner table topics, like politics. Our former religion was reduced to a kind of passive-aggressive joke, frivolous enough to make over text message.

And I was one of the family members leading the charge. For years of my adulthood, I found no respite in the church hierarchy or community; I sought out Sunday morning ritual in the sanctuary of yoga and inspirational teachers outside the parish.

But recently, I came back to the flock. Here's what happened.

Catholicism shaped my life

My parents weren't born into the church. A conservative and Methodist growing up in Dallas in the '60s, my father found refuge in the church's antiquity, universality, and the mystery of transubstantiation in his adulthood. To him, it represented truth — the original home of teachings from which Protestantism and American faith were born, and a desire for a connection to this universal tradition. My mom, meanwhile, grew up Unitarian and relatively agnostic, but was drawn to the church because of its mystery and beauty; she was particularly moved after reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain and the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Because they were converts themselves, my parents applied the proverbial zeal in raising their children. By the time they had me, the firstborn, they had moved to New York from Dallas, married in St. Patrick's Cathedral, honeymooned in Rome, and convinced some of my aunt and uncles to convert as well. My sisters and I were given very Catholic names: Virginia, Mary, Regina, and Elizabeth. My godfather, Don Virgilio, was a monsignor in Pope John Paul II's Vatican. Every Sunday, my parents heroically dressed four young girls for church and various Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes. They sat through decades of Christmas pageants, with only one of us ever getting to play Mary. I was most often a sheep.

When I left my parents' house I went on to Fordham University, where my heart and mind were set on fire by the radical social justice teachings of the Jesuits. I led our Students for Solidarity group and attended church regularly, which is saying something for a college kid. Catholicism was my identity. It was our identity. And we never thought we'd doubt it.

Child abuse and the church's role in a military dictatorship drove me away

The shift away from the church happened around 2007, a few years into the papacy of Benedict XVI, as we watched the church retreat into itself amid an ongoing sex abuse scandal and cover-up. It was difficult to stay faithful to a church that had closed its gates in a time of crisis, that began to litigate just as its people were hurting and needed it most.

The word catholic, after all, means "universal" and "one." It describes the 1.2 billion of its faithful, not the institution itself. What I felt during Benedict XVI's tenure was a sense that doctrine and historical customs were the Vatican's preferred solution to the pains and doubts of Catholics worldwide, when what we really needed was to be reminded of the totality of its unconditional love.

I was living in Argentina at the time (when Pope Francis, then Jorge Bergoglio, was the archbishop of Buenos Aires), and while already reeling from the church's response to the abuse scandal, I began to study how the church had behaved during Argentina's "Dirty War." From 1976 until 1983, a reactionary military dictatorship ruled Argentina. The dictatorship was responsible for a number of atrocities — murder, torture, and the "disappearance" of roughly 30,000 "leftist sympathizers," including many Catholics and even clergymen. But the church hierarchy of the time often sided with the dictatorship, whose fight against communism was purportedly carried out in the name of "Christian civilization." Some church officials went so far as to offer false confessions to the "disappeared" and then relay any potentially incriminating testimony to the military.

The whole church was not complicit, of course, and the recent light shed on Pope Francis's role in these events shows the complexity and confusion that surround that period in Argentina — but the more time I spent there, the more I witnessed the close and ongoing alliance between upper-class conservatives and the church establishment, and the more I found a bitter taste in my mouth.

After a year in Argentina, I stopped going to church entirely.

At the same time, my family became disjointed. My parents separated. My sisters and I had all left home or were leaving for cities around the globe. When we were home visiting, we no longer arranged our time around the Sunday mass schedule, instead seeking our truth elsewhere. We avoided anything that had a whiff of hypocrisy.

I replaced faith with political activism

For me, finding truth elsewhere meant finding a different kind of home in politics and in the candidacy of Barack Obama. In 2006, one of my best (Jesuit-educated) friends sent me a copy of Dreams From My Father, then-Sen. Obama's memoir. I couldn't put it down. His honesty, prose, and self-reflection were unlike any I had seen in a politician; his years spent on the South Side of Chicago in organizing in Catholic churches caught my attention. His compassion for others and understanding of injustice — drawn from personal experience — guided his interest in politics and felt to me like the real deal (and, I would argue, it still does). I started paying attention to Obama's candidacy from abroad, and in September 2008 I moved back to the United States to volunteer for him in Colorado without a dime. A version of faith, one could say.

Pope Francis addresses the Syrian refugee crisis.

In the 2008 and the 2012 campaigns, I found an organization dedicated to empowering its people and providing an opening to the political process. In candidate and now President Obama, I found a leader who embodied what I had loved about the church and my Jesuit education: the notion that by loving our neighbor, seeing our similarities instead of our relatively smaller differences, and coming together, we will in fact change the world. We didn't have to accept things the way they were; rather, it was our responsibility to question and make those things better. The Obama campaigns felt to me like the truest articulation of people over politics, of love over power — and after my falling out with the Catholic Church, they restored my faith in leadership and the potential for institutions to evolve.

The ascension of Pope Francis brought me back to the church

I remember hearing a story shortly after Pope Francis had been elected that claimed one of the first things he did after the results were in was call his Buenos Aires newsstand to cancel his subscriptions — he would no longer be living there, after all, and he didn't want to put them through any extra trouble.

I asked myself, What kind of global leader takes the time to make that sort of phone call himself? A humble one, I thought.

Then it got better: Word then came out that the night of his election to the papacy, Francis took the bus back to his hotel with the other bishops, and insisted that he cover his own hotel bill for that night. He was a Jesuit, from Argentina, who refused to live in the papal apartment and declined Benedict's notorious red Prada shoes, reiterating the vow of poverty that he took when entering the Society of Jesus. This was a shift.

So I started to pay attention.

At the time, I was back living in New York after seven years away, passing by my college church more frequently and surrounded by just a few more Catholics than the other cities I had lived in recently. I started popping back into the breathtaking St. Francis Xavier Church on 15th Street — just to see what they had to say about this Francis, being a Jesuit and all. I enjoyed hearing the Jesuit priest smile and pause when he said the words "Pope Francis"; the pregnant pause was filled with a sense of pride — and relief.

Of course, news came quickly that made liberal Catholics, and me, realize we weren't exactly witnessing an overnight revolution in the church. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had taken a hardline stance against President Cristina Kirchner's same-sex marriage law; the two had open and very public disputes. And, of course, reports of his potential incrimination of two fellow Jesuits during the Dirty War caused more consternation. (He has since asked for the Vatican to open its files on the Dirty War — a huge move toward getting at the truth of the church's complacency or involvement.)

But when Francis released his mission statement for his papacy, I realized that there was something much larger happening here. The church felt safe again. Pope Francis was calling me back home.

Just as President Obama provided an opening for an entire generation to get involved in the political process, what we see now in Francis — in a more profound and global sense — seemed to be welcoming people in by looking out. The core strategy of Obama's campaign was an expansion of the electorate: getting more people involved in their communities and participating in the political process. Francis represents a similar strategy for the Catholic Church: Get out of the institution and into the world; be with the people and invite them into the flock.

Here's the sentence from Francis's mission statement that sealed the deal: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

I was reminded of the beauty of the Catholicism that I'd seen in Argentina and in my travels through Central and South America, but that I had closed my heart off to when I rejected the institution itself: the priests, nuns, and laypeople who showed up day in and day out in the hardest of places, prayed for and protected those being persecuted, and advocated for economic equality and justice as the wealth gap widened.

This is the faith and the "doctrine" that formed in my heart through college and childhood but that I had distanced myself from. This was the church home I longed for, that I had looked to politics to substitute. This was the true meaning of "Catholic" to me: a love of the universality of our humanity, of our common struggles and redemptions, and of our potential to do good for the world and one another.

In the first few months of his papacy, Pope Francis washed the feet of a Muslim woman during the Holy Thursday ritual, defying all tradition by acting out of love. When he invited 150 homeless people for a tour of the Vatican a few years later, the love must have been palpable. And as he continues to speak out for the voiceless and the oppressed (refugees, immigrants, children), we know that the relationships he has with them have transformed him and that he is indeed their father. He is a lover of the things and people that scare us, that wake us up from our complacency and ultimately have a way to transform our notion of what is possible and sacred.

Pope Francis's inclusive message and embodiment of the Jesuit emphasis on service solidified my return to Catholicism. I doubt I'm the only one. Hoards of non-Catholics are moved and inspired by his presence and teachings, and the fervor and "exuberance" we've seen during his US visit can only bring good things for the church.

I never thought I'd say this, but it's an exciting time to be a Catholic.

During my return to the church, I've been digging through old college spirals and readings as a way to reconnect with my Jesuit roots. One quotation from activist Shane Claiborne, one I remember sharing often during my senior year at Fordham, speaks even more clearly to me in the time of Francis than it did then:

Just as "believers" are a dime a dozen in the church, so are "activists" in social justice circles nowadays. But lovers are hard to come by. And I think that's what our world is desperately in need of — lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about. We are trying to raise up an army not simply of street activists but of lovers — a community of people who have fallen desperately in love with God and with suffering people, and who allow those relationships to disturb and transform them.

I still struggle to reconcile my faith and my politics

So now, as a card-carrying member of St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan, I'm discovering what it means to be Catholic as an adult.

I keep it pretty practical, but there's certainly been a reigniting of my spirit. I volunteer at Xavier's soup kitchen, which feeds hundreds each Sunday. I am a godmother to my best friend's son — a responsibility that now carries new weight and meaning. I go to church whenever I can. It's beautiful, and I'm often struck by the priests' wisdom and humor.

By and large, however, it is the community that fills my heart. A few Sundays ago, we celebrated a dedicated parishioner's 90th birthday. The priest presented her with a lovely bouquet; the entire congregation sang "Happy Birthday." You could feel the love — it's that simple.

But this reawakening comes with distinct challenges. As a monthly donor to Planned Parenthood, I am often at odds with persistent church policies on social issues. But we must avoid the American tendency to pull the church into our political battles and project our political dynamics onto figures like Pope Francis, the absurdity of which was abundant during his US visit. (An example: when the New York Times recapped his speech to Congress on A1 by stating, "Both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise.").

Pope Francis speaks out about the death penalty.

I don't expect the pope to change Catholic doctrine overnight, if at all. But what he's done brilliantly is show the world that beyond and beneath the black and white of the rules and threats of excommunication, there is humanity and a willingness to love that can thrive within the structure of these teachings. That there is an opening, and that our time is better spent focusing on the humanity and possibility that the church provides, instead of what it restricts.

Francis reminds us that the holy sacraments and rules were originally born out of the deep fount of love, intended to protect and guide. Over time, the fact that they became more important than the message from which they sprang could be seen as a testimony to the human need for boundaries. In its purest form, love doesn't have a net — which is why the teachings of Jesus and his disciple Francis are so discomforting. The challenge is to jump without looking at the net, or without any net at all.

I'm not suggesting liberal Catholics shouldn't continue to hold the church responsible for its own evolution — they should. But impatience forgets that change, political or theological, tends to come in increments. It's unclear what doctrinal change will occur under Francis's watch: I wouldn't expect any 180-degree reversals on divorce, abortion, or gay rights. But I do expect a continued opening and an encouragement of welcoming people through the doors instead of pushing them away, for the church is their home too.

Last week, as I stood with the tens of thousands of faithful and fans in Central Park, awaiting just a glimpse of the Popemobile and Francis, all I felt was joy. When he passed by, he was not forcing a smile that I've seen so many politicians bear in front of these types of crowds. This was not a celebrity sighting or a parade. This was a disciple, in his purest form: a singular figure, in white, with a gentle grin and wave. Nothing to prove. Nothing to say. Just showering us with his presence.

I hope that from his vantage point he saw the community he has helped unite: one that spans the world, class, gender, background, language.

A community that I'm a proud member of now. Because I'm Catholic.

Gillea Allison is the director of community for Blue State Digital, an agency and technology company that builds and mobilizes communities online for some of the world's leading nonprofits, advocacy organizations, and brands.

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