The church from a distance

As a former Catholic, emotional conflicts are as natural as sunrises, so it's not surprising I've been having a difficult time calibrating my interest in the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI.

At times it feels similar to hearing that the government of some town where you used to live (not to name names) did something stupid and you take a brief, but acute, interest in it.

You feel a slight pang of upset, perhaps dash off a "Can you believe this?" email to a friend, and then there's the inevitable social media posts.

Of course, among some ex-Catholics, the feeling runs a bit deeper than what you feel or say following the failure of said town to implement proper bike lanes.

For me and many others, the church played a starring role in our lives. It binds together our family histories. For many of us, it was an essential part of our formal education. Ultimately, it gave us something to rebel against and something to leave. It helped define us as what we are and what we are not.

I've never talked about this, but the resignation announcement of Benedict XVI sent a memory rushing forth. The last time I attended a Catholic mass of my own volition-that is to say, not for a baptism, wedding or funeral-was on April 2, 2005. That was the afternoon Pope John Paul II died.

At the time I was renting a charming attic apartment in a house on Starr Street in downtown New London. From the living room window I could see the rectangular gray rock bell tower of St. Mary's Star of the Sea church on Huntington Street jutting up above the old trees and older rooftops. It was beautiful anytime, but it was especially so when it would sing lead over a background harmony of leaden clouds and rain.

So after time spent watching cable news about John Paul's death, I was moved to go St. Mary's that evening.

Perhaps it was an echo from my childhood, when I was undeniably Catholic and would attend Saturday vigil Mass with my maternal grandparents at another St. Mary's church, this one in Torrington. That St. Mary's, as I remember it, was built to impress, with imposing gray columns propping up a dark ceiling dotted with lonely electric stars.

Above the doorway, which led to the nave, there was this poorly superimposed photograph of the pontiff with his arms outstretched over a photo of St. Peter's Square. Underneath that there was a sign in intimidating block letters admonishing, "Silence!"

My mother's family are Polish immigrants, and the fact that John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice meant everything to them. Whenever the pope was on the evening news, my wonderful late grandfather would call out "Pope! Pope!" in accented, cabbage-y English and my grandmother, my sister and I would come running.

When I went to St. Mary's Star of the Sea on the evening John Paul II died, I sat in the back pew and followed along in the liturgy for a while. Soon enough though, I reverted to my old adolescent habit of tuning out the priest and skipping around the book of readings, happily revisiting my favorite bible stories.

But about halfway through the Mass, whatever spirit moved me to go to the church made me get up and quietly leave.

It wasn't me anymore. It is such a powerful dose of honesty when you realize something isn't you anymore.

For many of us, over time, the church evaporated from our bodies and souls like a wet road in sunshine, a road that can lead to a better place.

But from time to time, I turn back and see spires poking through the skyline.

And that is why, when the fumata bianca finally puffs out of the Sistine Chapel, I'll watch until it dissipates and disappears over the city and the world.

Stephen Chupaska is an occasional contributor to The Day who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at or on Twitter @schupaska.


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