I was raised as a mainstream Protestant in a state with relatively few Catholics, so Catholicism always seemed foreign and exotic to me. I watched "The Nun's Story" with fascination and read books about families whose lives revolved around their Catholic faith, like "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" (on which "The Sound of Music" was based) and "Karen" (about a young woman with cerebral palsy). I never actually attended a Mass or even set foot in a Catholic church so far as I can recall, but through television and books, I reveled in the pre-Vatican II Latin, the flickering candles, and the solemn ceremonies.
My interest in Catholicism—which was later supplemented by a similar fascination with Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism—must seem odd, considering that I grew up into an atheist, but in retrospect, the explanation seems obvious to me. By the time I hit middle school, I knew that my relatives' religions didn't offer good answers to the questions that mattered to me. Since reading and asking and thinking about religion didn't provide the information I wanted, I wondered if practicing religion would work. The churches I'd attended bored me, but could I lose myself—and find the god that seemed so obvious to everybody else—in the elaborate rituals and standardized prayers of Catholicism? No; I realized that chanting the rosary and kneeling and crossing myself weren't going to satisfy. I never got any closer to being a Catholic than reading about them.
Now I read that the Vatican is reaching out to atheists through an initiative known as "The Courtyard of the Gentiles," in reference to the area outside the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE-70 CE) where non-Jews were allowed. The head of the Vatican's culture office, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, says that the aim of the meeting is not to convert nonbelievers, but rather to open a two-way dialogue and remove confusion. There will be no uppity atheists like Richard Dawkins among the panelists, though. According to Ravasi, "someone convinced of already possessing all the answers, with the duty simply to impose them" is not suited to take part in such an exchange. I take this to mean that the "infallible" pope will also not be in attendance.