Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
On an April day in 2005, my husband and I turned on the television to watch some show, but the program had been interrupted by coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. I switched to another channel, but that one was broadcasting the same thing. I lifted the remote to turn off the TV, but my husband told me to pause. "Wait. Look at this," he said.
The cameras panned over the crowds, which seemed to have no end. I'd never seen so many people gathered in one place, and marveled at the endless variety of ethnicities and nationalities represented. It was like one of those intergalactic conventions in a sci-fi movie: There were nuns and monks wearing strange (to me) habits, people dressed in traditional garb from all over the world, folks holding signs written in all different languages.
Even more remarkable was the list of public figures in attendance: One news program showed a highlight reel of all the dignitaries arriving, and afterward I was hard pressed to name a world leader whom I had not just seen at St. Peter's Square. According to Wikipedia, there were 4 million people in attendance, including four kings, five queens, over 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions. It was the single largest gathering of heads of state outside of the United Nations in the history of the world, surpassing the funeral of Winston Churchill.
I turned to my husband for his reaction. At the time he was a lapsed Southern Baptist with more than a few anti-Catholic opinions, so I had expected him to roll his eyes and turn off the footage. Instead, he seemed to be lost in thought. He spent a long time watching the entire world pause for the funeral of this Pope. Then finally, he said, "There is something going on with the Catholic Church. Something...different. I just can't figure out what it is."
I was reminded of that moment this afternoon, as I once again found myself glued in front of the television to watch something huge happening at St. Peter's Square. Once again I saw crowds gathered like I had rarely seen in my life, a collection of people from all over the planet. Once again I sensed, as my husband had remarked in 2005, that there was something special, something different happening here -- only this time, as a Catholic myself, I knew what it was. And it brought tears to my eyes to see it.
To behold what happened in the Vatican today is to behold the fruits of Christ's promise that he would establish one Church, and that he would never abandon it. To see the footage of the masses in St. Peter's Square is to see what it looks like when people of all different races and nationalities and customs and traditions are brought together as a single family in Christ. To have experienced the undeniable feeling of hope and excitement that rippled to the ends of the earth when Pope Francis stepped out on that balcony is to have experienced a reminder that God is with this Church. It may be full of imperfect people who act very, very imperfectly sometimes, but God guides it still, just as he promised he would.
Two years to the day after Pope John Paul II's funeral, my husband and I became Catholic. As I think back on that afternoon in 2005 (which, unbeknown to us, was the very beginning of our conversions) I have to think that many others were in that same position today. I have no doubt that people from all over the world watched today's footage, as we did so many years ago, and were left with the unshakable feeling that there is something special about this Church. Like we were, they may be puzzled by many things about this strange religion, yet be left with questions about how it remains such a force in the world after 2,000 years, how it manages to unite all peoples. I pray that they get all the answers they're looking for, and, as we did, eventually discover just what it so special about the Catholic Church.