The appointment last week of a new pope has made me think and chant lots about my Catholic upbringing. And it has stirred in me a mix of emotions. At first I felt really angry that my favourite BBC radio station (5 Live) dropped all their other news and sports stories to broadcast almost non-stop speculation for 45 minutes about what colour puff of smoke would emerge from the Vatican (who, it has to be said, do theatre incredibly well.)

Pope Francis

The reporter’s tone was one of excitement and hushed reverence, of the sort we normally hear during coverage of a British royal wedding. I felt this was inappropriate, for an organisation whose treatment of women, homosexuals and sexually abused children leaves a lot to be desired. And also because I reckon only 20,000 of the programme’s 1 million UK listeners actually attend Catholic mass on a Sunday. I argued that there were probably more ex-Catholics than practising Catholics listening to the broadcast. I shared this view on a BBC blog, but it was deleted by the BBC for being too provocative. It was then allowed to appear after all when I emailed them to appeal against their censorship.

I spent some time last week chanting about all this media coverage, partly because I felt angrier than was good for me. I realised that I have mixed feelings about the Church. In my 20s it took me two whole years to wrestle myself away from Catholicism and to become a Buddhist, partly through a fear of God striking me down. In the end, my growing courage and Nichiren Buddhism’s emphasis on humanity’s inherent magnificence appealed to me more than the Catholic emphasis on our innate sin and guilt. Likewise I prefer Buddhism’s focus on challenging rather than coping and on winning over our weaknesses rather than on consolation. And yet I am grateful for being brought up in the church as it gave me a benchmark to compare other religions with and the Christian ideals of Love, Charity and Peace are still values that I hold dear. And as a Buddhist I believe that karmically I ‘chose’ to be born in a Catholic family anyway. But I am still a Buddhist after 28 years because I feel that chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a more powerful tool to use than any kind of prayer I was taught as a Catholic.

Due to my family heritage I have been to more Catholic weddings and funerals than Buddhist ones. I still find some hymns very moving and powerful. A particular favourite is Allegri’s Miserere, inspired by Psalm 51, I would actually like that one played at my own (Buddhist) funeral. Yet I cringe when I hear members of a congregation saying: “I am not worthy to receive you,” (where ‘you’ = Jesus) because in Buddhism this represents deep self-slander. And I have always wondered, how can you “love thy neighbour as thyself” if you do not love yourself in the first place?

Then again I like the sense of mystery, theatre and belonging you can get in a church service. And we had some very charismatic priests when I was growing up. But we had some not so great ones as well and I grew disillusioned with the way that the spiritual experience depended on the personality of the priest and the fact that there seemed to be a ‘middle-man’ between me and the divine power of the Universe. Then again, in terms of his behaviour as a human being, Jesus was an incredible example of the Compassion and Justice that Buddhism also teaches.

And I have also had the privilege of knowing some quite extraordinary Catholics. One of them was a Dominican monk called John Orme Mills OP (1930-2010) whom I met on a train 25 years ago. John was a very intelligent but also enlightened man (with a high SQ as well as EQ and IQ) and I always felt his wisdom, courage, joy and compassion – the qualities of Buddhahood – shining from his life. He found Buddhist teachings very intriguing and I used to joke that he would chant in his next lifetime… (and incidentally he would have made a lovely Pope 🙂 ).

... a great friend, would have been a lovely Pope

John Orme Mills OP… a great friend, would have been a lovely Pope

I know very little about this new pope. It is highly unlikely I will ever meet him in person. But I will chant about him as I would anyone else, with a determination to see his innate Buddhahood and to feel deep respect towards him, even if I disagree with much of what he says and much of what the church represents. I will celebrate and feel grateful for the Catholic teachings that I find valuable, argue against the teachings I find damaging and maintain unconditional positive regard for anyone who practises their faith with sincerity and a seeking heart

As French philosopher Joseph Joubert said: “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” When we find this idea difficult, it is often because we are trapped in a narrow and damaging ‘tribal’ mindset.

Commenting on his approach to dialogues with people of different faiths, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says: “Choosing dialogue is the key to building peace and achieving a victory of our inner humanity. The greater the differences between us, the more I concentrate on trying to understand as deeply as possible the other person’s thoughts and feelings.” 


PS.  A Catholic monk from New Zealand recently contacted me on Facebook, suggesting a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. Unfortunately his message disappeared from my FB account before I had a chance to note down his email address and reply. So if you are that monk and are reading this, please contact me again by leaving a comment below. I think your name might be Graham, but I cannot be sure… I would love to hear from you.