PHILADELPHIA — When the new pope sped by in a big convertible one October day here - oblivious to the two hours we had spent waiting to see him - I thought my disdain for the church of my childhood was sealed. This was the late'70s: I had one pair of presentable jeans; a $500 car; and a superior set of views about women, birth control, and the wisdom of celibate men.
John Paul II had a wardrobe of silk, some very expensive wheels, and a three-story-high altar with microphones. This was the church of the poor? I didn't even stay for the Mass.
As life would have it, I soon revisited the Catholicism of John Paul and grew to love it. And with his death last week, I've felt tremendous gratitude that God gave such a person as a leader not only to Roman Catholics but also to the world as a representation of the promise and the hopes of humanity.
For Catholics, the Sunday Mass offers a kind of ever-present canvas, ready to receive the colors of the week: The niggling worries, the flat-out dread, the regrets, good intentions, fleeting joys, and abiding consolations. In a formal Sunday prayer the priest presents all of this to a God who will confer meaning: "...You give us all these gifts. You fill them with life and goodness. You bless them and make them holy...." It's an amazing expression of hope, especially when you're back week after week seeking still more meaning for yet another variation on these "gifts."
In this prayer, John Paul's universal call for a "culture of life" gets personal. Here - and in prayers like it in other faiths - the hues of human experience - be they a wedding feast or a sunny day, an extended illness or a lost job, an unwanted pregnancy, an addiction, a budding friendship - all become the makings of a masterpiece of a life, each potentially as magnificent as a sunrise or a Beethoven symphony. For that to happen, we must set as our default mode, so to speak, the impulse to try to embrace life itself, even when it doesn't look pretty. Otherwise, where is the hope?
Many notable, laudable Catholics these days serve the obviously poor - in mission work, soup kitchens, and such. For others, like me, the church of John Paul has offered a context for the simple, if unfashionable, work of wife and mother. Here, if nowhere else, the setting aside of personal agenda and ambition in order to care for others can be sanctified, and motherhood, servanthood, becomes important on a cosmic scale. No matter that no one is paying attention.
In my work as a religion writer, I've had the great honor of listening to people of all faiths talk about their personal prayer. Many of my interviews have been with the often-disparaged and sometimes-disheartened ranks of the Catholic clergy. They have led me to believe that many of the pope's ground troops share his reported gift for connecting on a deep level with those he met. Never a church-y, or devotional-type Catholic, I've found it hard not to be moved by their generosity - here a holy card for one of my children, there a scripture passage for me. From seminarian to cardinal, their interest, in the end, has always been in my life and not in the byline or the point they seek to make, and I've appreciated that.
My reporting has also led me to doubt whether deeply religious people could ever really sort themselves out - as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims or whatever - if they were stripped of the language of the creeds that illuminate the experience of God for them. Surely those outside Catholicism recognized in John Paul simply another of the world's many good and praying people, and that was enough for them.
Of course there are many, many Catholics whose lifestyles or beliefs don't fully hew to the cry of John Paul's version of Catholicism. Others are convinced away from the church by history, some by a perceived hypocrisy, some by a deep hurt.
Particularly in raising a family, I've come to sympathize with John Paul. We lay out for our kids our best understanding of the guidelines for a good life. We see this wisdom ignored, tested, and flat-out violated at times. And we realize that on some things we may well be wrong. But none of this absolves us from the responsibility to speak out as best we know how. Leaders try to lead. Followers try to change. Sometimes the old ways prove true. Sometimes we need the new. It seems to be an imperfect world, and yet, as my understanding of St. Paul has it, all things - even grave errors - can work for good for those who trust God.
So I take my Catholicism in the moment, in the little church down the street, where some people say their rosaries and others study C.S. Lewis, and all - as the pope and even Jesus himself probably did - put it up on that canvas come Sunday, with the outrageous idea that maybe Someone sees a masterpiece in the making.
• Mary Beth McCauley is a journalist and a past winner of the Religion Newswriters Association Supple Award for writer of the year.