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I Saw the Pope in Paris When I Was an Atheist; It Changed Me



Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble - published on 09/26/15

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As Pope Francis traveled through the streets of Washington, DC, interviewed some of the spectators enthusiastically greeting him. I was completely unsurprised to read young people from all different backgrounds admitting to the reporter that, though they were raised Catholic, they no longer believed in God, or the Church; though they liked Pope Francis, none of them seemed interested in returning to the sacraments.

I used to be one of those kids.

In high school I had the opportunity to go to France for World Youth Day.

I was an atheist.

I hated church-y events.

For that matter, I did not want to see the pope. But I did want to go to Paris.

I was in love with France, and my time there made me fall in love even more. For a week, before World Youth Day ’97 began, I stayed with a family that lived in the country, several hours south of Paris. We picked raspberries and mushrooms, and communicated to each other in sign language. One day, the family brought me and another girl to a fair in the town and the mother asked me if I would like some pommes frites. I gave her a baffled look. “Frites” she said, “frites

“Oh French fries!” I responded, gleeful that I had finally guessed.

My host mother rolled her eyes.

Language issues aside, I felt right at home. The family was not particularly pious. It was the grandparents, apparently, who had invited us. The young mother and her children were just there for vacation, so not too many religious activities. So far, so good.

Then we got to Paris for the events of World Youth Day, and I could not avoid the in-your-face religion, and throngs of delighted, fresh-faced kids whose number I had to join.

On the subway, I would put as much space between me and my youth group as possible; they all seemed oblivious to the disdainful looks from the sophisticated Parisians around us. I was embarrassed to be an American. I felt empathy for these Parisians who seemed to want nothing more than to vomit these gross, over-exuberant, religious foreigners out of their beautiful city. I felt their disgust.

On one of the days, the pope was going to come speak to us, and we traipsed to a large park where we waited in the rain and the mud. I dreamed of going to the Musee D’orsay instead of listening to the droning of the rosary being prayed, and the loud shouts of excited kids.

But then the pope came out.

I felt the hair on my arms stand up. I had earphones in my ears, to hear the translation of what he said, truthfully I wasn’t paying attention to the words. I found myself, instead, simply listening to his voice.

And I felt something.

It was a power, a warmth, and it streamed forth from him, like an infection.

I knew this man loved me.

I had no idea why he would love me, but I knew that he did.

Not in a general, humanitarian way, but in a deeply personal way.

This man loved me.

Tears filled my eyes but I quickly brushed them away.

Still, I went home changed.

I would remain an atheist for almost ten more years. I did not believe in God, after Paris, any more than I had before.

But I believed in that man.

And that was a start.

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, fsp, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth

AtheismPope FrancisPope John Paul II
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