I grew up in Sacramento as a Catholic in the 1960s. My grandparents, Josephine and Dante Baratini, took my sisters and me to Sacred Heart on Sunday mornings in white gloves, head doilies and patent leather shoes.
My grandmother taught Latin at St. Francis High School for 40 years, and that I knew my grandmother’s confirmation name was typical of Roman Catholic families of the day. The church was steeped in formalities, traditions and piety.
At home, I’d kneel down to say my prayers, imagining God as a large, stern man watching me from above. And I’d pray earnestly: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
The Catholic Church scared me. What 5-year-old wouldn’t be afraid of a church that had you contemplate dying in your sleep?
I never prayed enough, gave enough, or stayed sober, celibate or served others enough. I was the black lamb, sheepishly following along, unwilling to completely break ranks, because I was tied to the rituals that reminded me of my relatives after so many of them died over the years.
As I grew up and started my own family, I considered myself a hypocritical Catholic. When challenged about why I sent my children to parochial schools even though priests sexually abused thousands of young boys, why I stayed with a church that condemned women, homosexuals and divorcees – all people who were represented in my family – I’d say: “There is no good reason to join the Catholic Church if you were not born into it, especially if you are a girl. But it’s what I know, and it connects me to the past.”
Almost all my adult life, I’ve had a complicated, embarrassing and phony relationship with the Catholic Church. I did not blame my husband when he didn’t want to convert. I stayed because I was raised Catholic, not because the church was relevant to my life.
But all of that has changed with Pope Francis.
Pope Francis is merciful, inclusive and imperfect. I believe he welcomes me and my daughters and my Protestant husband into his community of ordinary people trying to live good lives.
He has taken on issues that for generations have largely been taboo for the Vatican. On gays, who had been treated as “an intrinsic moral evil,” Francis asks: “Who am I to judge?” On divorced Catholics like my mother, who was seen as “fallen” and excommunicated, this pope says, “The Church is called to be always the open house.”
On women, Pope Francis argues for a new “profound” theology that recognizes women’s power. He calls the sex abuse scandals “leprosy in our home” that he intends “to confront with the severity it requires.” On the climate crisis, he sees a spiritual problem affecting the poorest among us.
Pope Francis has contradictions in his theology, for sure. While he values women, he also firmly opposes women becoming priests. Priests are still not allowed to marry, which many argue would be both a deterrent to sexual deviance and also a boost to recruiting young priests. Contraceptive use is still not sanctioned, though many argue it is necessary to reduce poverty worldwide.
Yet this pope makes ordinary people and their lives matter to church decision-making, and for that, I will accept his contradictions. His way of thinking – from the bottom up, considering the poorest first – gives dignity to all of us.
With judgments being replaced with acceptance, I can hear and see more lessons from the lives of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles, and I can better shape my own life according to their love and service to others.
With nothing to fear and no reason to be ashamed, I can have both incense and relevance. This is the kind of church that Pope Francis is giving me and our daughters.
Karen Skelton is founder of Skelton Strategies in Sacramento, the former CEO of The Shriver Report and a former political adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton.