Redeem yourself *

by Michael O. Allen on April 24, 2008

I tried to restrain myself from commenting on Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States. I expected the media would go overboard in its coverage. But, even with his departure, I have to get some things off my chest.

I believe religion has its place and uses, the most relevant of which I think is that it serves as a balm or palliative for troubled souls. Anything people can latch onto to make them cope with our troubled world is always welcomed. But that is not all religion, whatever your faith or denomination, should be.

I’ll acknowledge, of course, that there are institutions of all faiths and denominations that do phenomenal work in the shadows, where people are sick and where they suffer. They uphold the best that we should expect of the faithful.

What I also know is that religion has been the cause of much suffering in the world.

Which brings me to the subject of Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.S. I must not believe in redemption because certain things I don’t think you should not be able to overcome. Among those I would include youthful dalliance with Nazism (although I did have my own dalliances–with Catholicism and Islam, not Nazism–as a youth but a word or two on those later).

Joseph Alois Ratzinger was a former Hitler Youth. His supporters insist membership in the Hitler Youth was required of all 14-year-old Germans of that awful period and that Ratzinger was an unenthusiatic member; moreover, that a cousin of his who had Down Syndrome was killed by Nazis in their eugenics campaign. Ratzinger was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps at 16 and later trained in the German infantry but was precluded from actual combat because of an illness.

That’s more history than I wanted to get into here. But, this is the thing. Even allowing that Ratzinger regretted his past and atoned for it, which I don’t know that he did either, did he have to become the pope?

He was supposed to be guiding the search for a new pope when–confounding predictions that the next pope would be from the developing world, probably Latin America–he pulled a Cheney and had himself named pope instead.

Ratzinger was always conservative but the Catholic Church needed change–doctrines about marriage, celibacy and the priesthood, women ordination, gay rights, abortion, and a host of other issues–and he was unlikely agent of change. He hasn’t been. Church doctrines have been just as destructive under his papacy.

There isn’t much to say about my dalliance with Islam. As a boy, I partook in the festivities when Muslims break their fast during the Ramadan season. I appreciated but did not try to convert to, or even learn the religion.

Catholicism was another matter. I very nearly converted to Catholicism, all on account of a boyhood crush on a neighborhood girl. My family in Africa when I was growing up was Baptist. I was raised in the church, and I graduated from a Baptist high school.

I fell into deep infatuation with a girl when I was about 10 years old. Besides the fact that she was Ibo and I was Yoruba, she was also Catholic to my Baptist. So, of course, I started going to her church.

Not only that, I started taking Catechism classes because she took communion and it was something I wanted to share with her. The studies went well enough, I memorized all the prayers:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

And so on and so forth.

I lived in deep poverty in those days and I remember much of my life in Africa being full of turmoil. The time I was besotted with the girl and Catholicism I remember as being relatively happy and peaceful. The church and its practiced rituals comforted me. The happiness came from plays I wrote, child plays really, and on dulcet evenings, we would perform for family and friends.

I was always the hero in the plays and she my heroine.

I don’t remember exactly how this period ended, except that just before the baptismal mass, when I would take my first communion as a Catholic, I fell violently ill. By the time I recovered I no longer wanted to be a Catholic (I believe, also, that the girl moved away from the neighborhood and, with my her gone, so did my ardor for the Catholic church).

But, in forsaking the Catholic Church, I did not exactly return to my church.

Partly for my grandmother, who I adored, I attended church services devotedly during my adolescence and youth and participated in other activities at church. But I had questions that no one in my church or my high school scripture union could answer. When I left high school and moved away from home, eventually arriving in the United States as a 16-year-old, a time when no one compelled me to go to church, I stopped going to church regularly.

Often when I have found myself in church in the intervening years, it was often on assignment as a newspaper reporter. I have returned to this or that church occassionaly to worship (the Riverside Church was the last one a few years ago) but left still questioning, still not having answers.

This wasn’t the overriding question that pushed me away from the Christian church all these years but it is one I want to ask at the moment:

Why is there so much suffering in this world?

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