When I was in college and registered for a philosophy course called Faith and Doubt, my father did not hesitate in his response: "What doubt?"
My parents have taught at a Catholic High School in Queens, New York for 45 years. In their minds there has never been any time or room for doubt. Their faith is a very clear-cut, clean-lined proposition.
I, and many of my generation, however, have landed in grayer matter -- where conviction and dogma collide and Catholic doctrine at times evokes more concern than comfort. Doubt and debate have defined my experience of the faith -- leaving me to wonder at times what kind of Catholic I can be with all my questions.
Then along came Francis.
Pope Francis, who makes his inaugural visit to the U.S. on September 24th, demonstrated that he would be doing things differently from his first moments as Pope. Before offering the traditional papal blessing to the crowd in St. Peter's Square, he asked the people first to bless him. In one swift move he introduced a tone of humility and revolution that the Papacy and the Church had never seen. And in doing so, he gave me and millions, reason to feel hopeful for the future of the Church -- or at least for our place in it.
Unlike many Catholics who have walked away frustrated and fed up, I chose to remain beneath the, at times, sheltering umbrella of the Church -- simultaneously defending and doubting all that it stands for.
This balancing act can be exhausting.
Yet Francis makes it less so -- seeming, at the very least, to understand and to empathize.
"Don't worry I am twice a month in crisis," he told a woman religious who confided she had been experiencing a crisis of faith in the Church but experienced a revival since his election. This glimmer of papal doubt gives me hope and reaffirms my faith.
So in the Church, for better or worse, I remain -- and on paper it would seem I am all in. I met and married a Catholic. I've had four children baptized in the Church. And, to the likely amusement of my parents, on Tuesday afternoons find myself teaching at our local parish school. My religion however feels a world away from the lessons I received at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs grammar school where Sister Barbara ruled with an iron fist and a heavy hand.
In my classroom today we abide more by the golden rule than the wooden ruler. Semantics aside at the heart of every lesson I try to emphasize forgiveness, gratitude, kindness and love. And while I see the value in mooring these children to a faith and an institution that feeds, clothes and houses more than any other in the world -- and that sustains and comforts in the worst of times, I struggle with the knowledge that Matthew, my "go to" in the front row, could one day be locked out of the class should he grow up to love a man instead of a woman. Or if I aspired to move beyond my role as a volunteer second grade teacher -- and felt called to be, oh say, a priest.
But when Francis says things like: "Who am I to judge?" he helps to mitigate the struggle.
While no rules have changed, the tone has, and for me and many like me that goes a long way. And begs the question -- maybe someday?
The night he was ordained Francis toasted the Cardinals who had elected him. With a wink and perhaps a nod to those beyond the Vatican walls he said: "May God forgive you for what you have done."
Since that day with every word and every gesture the Pope has reminded the Cardinals and all within earshot -- and a twitter feed -- the stalwarts and the discontented, that the Catholic Church is composed of much more than clerics and Cardinals and marble and wood and stone -- but people, men and women, with hearts and souls and minds. And he knows that many hearts are heavy, many souls tarnished and minds do not always agree
Francis knows that his people and their lives can be messy. We come with problems and crises and questions and doubt. Yet he refuses to remain on the altar and turn his back on our mess. Instead he wants to visit and to engage and in fact encourages the discussion. The Pope has said he "...wants things messy and stirred up in the congregation" -- for me and all my doubt there has never been any clearer path to faith.