I have grown in faith – and the love of kitsch

A Chilean journalist presents a flag signed by the 33 men trapped in the San Jose mine last year. The Pope was greeting participants in the Catholic Press Congress, including Anna, who is pictured at the back

The bobbleheaded Pope figurine which nodded sagely on my desk, has been carefully encased in bubble-wrap. It – or one very much like it – featured in an ad for the Washington Metro during Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States in 2008. The luminous Lourdes Madonna, a tacky but much-loved inhabitant of my desk (the gift of a kindly reader), now glows gently on my bedside table. The photo of the first three women to work in the Roman Curia has been filed away. My battered copy of the Council documents has found a new home on my bookshelf. After more than three years of being the Herald’s chief feature writer, it is time to move on.

Clearing out my desk has made me wistful and a wee bit sentimental. As I pack away books, photographs of Pope Benedict XVI and articles about World Youth Day in Sydney, the Holy Father’s visit to Africa, his social encyclical Caritas in veritate and hundreds of other subjects, I realise again how much his papacy has shaped my time at this newspaper.

Covering a Church under the guidance of Pope Benedict has been a privilege, even in its darkest moments, because the Holy Father continues to take people by surprise. From his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, to his first meeting with abuse victims during his visit to the United States, this Pope is able to say and do things which cut over the din of the media and the often shambolic chatter of his Curia, and change the tenor of public discourse.

When I started on what the Americans would call the “religion beat” a good friend took me aside and told me I was mad. In his opinion I would see so much of the Church’s dark side that I would be in grave danger of losing my faith.

Rather surprisingly, it has had the opposite effect. I belong to the lost generation which grew up before a new Catechism had been devised and which was never properly catechised. Being constantly exposed to Pope Benedict’s “positive orthodoxy”, the emphasis on building a friendship with Christ has taught me so much more about a faith I thought I knew. And the dark side – the suffering that members of the Church have caused, the corruption, the sin – well, that was counterbalanced by getting the opportunity to meet and interview the labourers in the vineyard: parish priests, religious, nuns who hid Jewish families during the War, the dedicated parish Sisters who do the accounts, the lay people, the enthusiastic youngsters who all work tirelessly in the service of Christ.

The Pope’s visit to Britain was definitely one of the highlights. Sleep-deprived as we were at the Herald offices, it was hard not to feel the ebullience, the hope and the joy that Benedict’s visit brought. The beatification of Pope John Paul II was another such moment and a wonderfully poignant final assignment.

Meanwhile, I never expected, when I made my first phone call to the Anglican “flying bishop” Andrew Burnham in 2008, that I would stand as a sponsor to a young former Church of England curate who was received into the Church for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham on Holy Thursday.

Readers, colleagues and the people I have met through work have taught me more about the Church than I thought possible. I’ve also developed an unhealthy taste for religious kitsch and tat, and cannot help myself from buying ever more weird religious figures, rosaries and prayer cards. I really have learned so much in these last three years.

Anna is now editor-at-large of The Catholic Herald