Getting Close to the Pope Runs in the Family
John Kane was 19 when he stood with his other siblings behind his sister Margaret and his brother Richard as they stepped forward to hand Pope John Paul II a chalice of wine, a ceremonial gift to the Vicar of Christ, during his 1979 visit to Washington.
The pope's words on the Mall that day are seared into Kane's memory: "Such a large, beautiful family."
This morning, Elizabeth Kane, John's 15-year-old daughter and one of 27 first cousins in that large, beautiful family, will present Pope Benedict XVI with a gift as he celebrates Mass at Nationals Park.
John Kane hopes and expects that his daughter will see in the pope an expression of the traditions and values the Kane family holds dear -- the faith Kane's late parents passed along to their nine children, the devotion John Kane demonstrates, for example, by offering his moving company's services free to priests who are transferred from one parish to another.
The last time the Kanes stood before a pontiff, "he blessed us, and I saw the grace and power in the blue eyes he had, and it was just captivating. I never saw eyes that warm and welcoming," John says.
Elizabeth -- nervous, excited, yet remarkably poised for a 10th-grader on the verge of meeting the man Catholics consider Saint Peter's successor -- knew that her parents had written to the Archdiocese of Washington requesting that their family be chosen for an honored role at Nationals Park. But Elizabeth was startled nonetheless to be called into her mother's room and told that she -- a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda -- had actually been selected.
She thought of her image of the pope, a man she knows from photos and from lessons at school and church. "He seems like a very kind person," she says, "just more conservative than John Paul II."
This is, of course, the image that much of the world carries of this pope, for almost any man would seem a bit stiff compared with John Paul. John Kane, himself conservative in bearing and politics (he's the former chairman of Maryland's Republican Party), thinks of John Paul as a pope of "youthful vitality, a pope who skied, a pope who ran." But Kane expects that the man his daughter will meet will be "someone who isn't the dogmatic, strict theologian people think he is. He's someone whose central message is that we have to have hope."
Kane's older children are students at Catholic universities, Villanova and Georgetown, the kind of places Pope Benedict is expected to discuss on this trip -- schools that are Catholic and yet have, in the minds of traditionalists, strayed from doctrinal truths, opening their campuses to views and people very much at odds with church teachings.
"Certainly you have a diversity and open-mindedness on those campuses, and some people would question how strict a Catholicism those schools have," Kane says. "But this pope is realistic that you're not going to make people come to your view without a dialogue. And I'm comfortable that the schools my children go to challenge students to question their faith."
Anytime a pope visits this country, attention focuses on the large numbers of American Catholics who disagree with church teachings, whether on abortion, the role of lay members, the place of secular culture in Catholic education or the style and content of worship services. Kane sees the shifting sands of allegiance to the church in his own family. "My college-student children are not in the same church I'm in on Sunday mornings," he says. "Maybe theirs is more in their minds."
But he believes that his children will gravitate back to tradition as they get older, strengthened by having been on Catholic campuses where church teachings are questioned. "Faith that's not challenged can grow dull," Kane says. "So I'm fine with gay and lesbian student groups on campus and strong debates about controversial issues. The world has grown to question things; people are not going to just follow anymore."
At Stone Ridge, Elizabeth wrote a project on stem cell research, and classmates took on gay rights, abortion and other tough topics, examining both the views of the pope and of those who oppose church teachings. Elizabeth considers herself a Republican -- at school, she started a Little Politicians club, which has almost equal-size Republican, Democratic and independent factions -- but she figures she is perhaps "a little less conservative" than her father.
When it comes to faith, however, family tradition trumps any differences. As her father beams, Elizabeth pronounces herself ready to meet the pope. She plans to soak it all in, perhaps to pass the memory to children of her own someday. And then she has to hustle back uptown -- she's got a lacrosse game to play.
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