A death in Rome

The Pope's passing has my kids raising questions we can't answer
Shelley Page
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, April 09, 2005

"Mom, is that guy in the red suit dead or just sleeping?"

So began one of the many conversations in our house in the week since Pope John Paul II died. We are not a Catholic family, not even religious. But the orgy of coverage surrounding the pontiff's passing and a six-year-old's fountain of questions have us confronting issues we never planned on -- at least, not yet.

My children, who normally don't give the newspaper a glance unless an animal is on the front page, are consumed by the pageantry. The colourful photos of the Pope laid out in his crimson robes are fascinating to them. Even at their young ages, even raised by heathen parents, they sense something grand has happened and the world has shifted, if ever so slightly. Besides, dead people are always interesting.

As we try to interpret the images from Vatican City, we realize how ill-prepared we are to answer their questions about religion.

My husband -- a confirmed atheist, raised by pre-hippies without a whiff of spirituality -- is convinced he would be hit by the proverbial lightning bolt if he even set foot in a Catholic church. But he tries to be fair-minded when he fields the girls' questions about a world we don't inhabit. Invariably, his answers begin with "Some people believe ... " but rapidly digress to incomprehensible explanations of creationism and evolution.

Explained to a child, both sound equally absurd. "There was big explosion, see, and then there were these sort of sludge-like creatures who crawled out of the ocean. And they became people."

Blank stares.

"OK, well, some people believe that a guy named God created the world in six days, sort of by magic."

"What did God stand on when he did that?" asks the six-year-old. Our Bible learning exhausted, we can offer no reasonable reply to what seems a pretty good question.

The rituals of the church are even harder to explain. The oldest was astounded to learn about the test for papal vital signs; the pope is tapped three times on the forehead with a silver hammer while a cardinal asks, "(Insert Christian name here), are you dead?" I'm still convinced that's an April Fool's joke or a Monty Python sketch. All it needs is a dead Norwegian Blue parrot.

We told the kids about the silver hammer, anyway. The youngest, a born mimic, replied, "Are you dead? Are you dead?" then flopped on her back on the floor, arms akimbo, like a dog performing a trick.

Even being an agnostic, I could feel the superstitions of a church bearing down and the lightning bolts zeroing in.

And as one who rarely considers organized religion -- unless it's the Catholic Church denouncing the worldwide popularity of The Da Vinci Code -- I have never had so many discussions about religion with other grown-ups, either.

Friends who are Catholics confessed their positions on all the things the Pope stood for, or, more often, against.

A girlfriend wondered over dinner if the ability to believe in God is biologically wired, and somehow she is missing the mechanism.

Another friend is furious because her three-year-old daughter went to Toronto on the weekend to visit her father and, instead of Dora or Blue's Clues, watched around-the-clock coverage of the Pope's death. She returned home practically speaking in tongues. Since then, the father has phoned numerous times to remind her that Jesus Loves Her.

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