Never has the world witnessed so extravagant an accumulation of meaningless words and gestures as encrusted the death and eventual interment of Pope John Paul II. The kernel of truth amid the proliferating ritual was that the Pope was old, the Pope was ill, the Pope died. His Holiness might have wanted his obsequies to have been kept as simple as possible, but there would have been little point in 26 years of jet-setting round the universal church "in his mission to shine light on all corners of the globe" if the last act were not to be a massive media event occupying the centre of the world stage for more than a week. The seven-hour climax was watched by an audience of billions all over the world.
For day after day, hard-nosed reporters, used to unpicking the meaningless pronouncements of politicians, sat helpless as the befuddled faithful regaled them with fatuous slogans that had to pass unchallenged. "His voice and message embraced the world." "He touched people's lives." Cardinal Ratzinger, university-trained philosopher and hammer of heresy, allowed himself to say, "We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the father's house and that he sees us and blesses us." Why the father's house shouldn't have a telly as well as a window, he didn't say. It was television that made the Polish Pope an international superstar, television that caused a "river of humanity" to flow through Rome, television that drew to St Peter's Square five kings, six queens, 70 presidents, the entire Bush family, Cherie Booth and poor Prince Charles, who was suckered into the ritual act of shaking Mugabe's bloodstained hand for all the world to see. Just so did John Paul, soon to be the Great, "bring the world closer together", with phoney kisses of phoney peace, visible hand-clasps over the invisible abyss. Humankind cannot bear very much reality; toss them ritual instead and they'll snap it up.
Pope John Paul II had loads of rituals. Most of them, such as the rosary placed in his dead hands by the people who have been pulling his strings for years, were thrust upon him as part of the bag and baggage of the Catholic Church. He had to wear funny clothes, a little hat like a yarmulke, and a long coat with skirts and too many covered buttons, plus an assortment of bling, ring, chain, pectoral cross. All that kit was just for getting around in; when His H took part in high ritual he added a mitre, a stole, a chasuble, a cope, of silk brocade or silver lace, or cloth of gold, whatever. He could have insisted on a simpler habit, even workmen's clothes. He could have done as Tony Blair does, show himself in shirtsleeves, acting out humility and hard work, which would have been an even more theatrical ploy. For John Paul was a figurehead; every gesture he made and word he said should carry ritual significance and not
much else. The Tarmac-kissing routine was typical; it was meaningless, but photogenic. The Pope in his immaculate whites on his knees on the oily Tarmac, kissing the ground, looked like humility. It was hokum. It was an easy way of implying that he loved the country and its people, without having actually to say it, and be asked what in God's name he meant by it, seeing as his church continued to let the common people down in every way. Kissing flightpaths was on a par with kissing babies, which used to be a yardstick of hypocrisy. Babies can't resist, and they can't answer back.
John Paul II was good at reverent kissing of infants; he looked holy doing it. Some of his clergy looked rather less holy when they kissed children, but the only thing John Paul II chose to do about paedophile priests was to assist those cardinalates that were likely to be bankrupted by outstanding demands for legal compensation with funds from the vast coffers of the Vatican. Even so, because he raised his hands and made signs over huge crowds of children dragooned by their teachers to pack into sports arenas for a distant glimpse of the Popemobile, he was dubbed the pope of the young people. That's the thing about ritual. It persuades you to leave your brains at the door, which is why so many organisations, not just churches, make massive use of it. Stereotyped gestures and words are the essential components of branding. John Paul "touched the lives of people" means as much and as little as "Things go better with Coke". Studiously vague, unverifiable, inspirational cant.
Karol Wojtyla's repeated visits to country after country, cheered by vast crowds, uttering a few chosen words in the language of the place, acted out an intimacy with the people that did not exist. The Vatican used to be fond of claiming Brazil as the world's largest Catholic country; they don't mention it now. This week the Comissao Pastoral da Terra will celebrate the martires da terra, people of the Nordeste killed in the horrifyingly unequal struggle to protect their land and their human rights against corporate banditry. The Vatican has recognised none of them and will not be there. Wojtyla actively obstructed the activities of the Brazilian clergy on behalf of the landless peasantry and yet they call him the pope of the poor.
All the panoply of Rome cannot hide the truth. The Pope might have been the first to be an international superstar, but throughout his rule the church continued to fail in its duty of spreading the gospel to the people who need it most.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, British people still retain an unusual degree of resistance to superstition. Many were offended by the sycophancy of the extended coverage of the Pope's funeral. Few made the trip to Windsor to cheer on the wedding procession of Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles. Perhaps the bride should have taken lessons from the Pope, who was a consummate showman. Despite all the public interest in her, she has so far failed to become a celebrity, making it difficult to celebrate her. Schoolteachers did not frogmarch their pupils to Windsor, and equip them with flags to wag when she made her appearance. Nobody rented a crowd for her. And Camilla broke a basic rule of royalty by wearing to her wedding a hat that concealed her face.
Despite 35,000 spring flowers, Camilla's geriatric marriage would always have been a non-event compared to the day-long spectacle that starred Diana Spencer. Charles is said to love his second wife partly for her guilelessness; certainly she's not a performer. Diana was a mistress of the graceful gesture, holding hands with Aids patients, cuddling desolate children, allowing herself to be photographed time after time in the persona of Our Lady of Mercy. Though the tabloid press might be gagging for it, Camilla will never stoop to act out such a role.
The media in attendance at Windsor, who almost outnumbered the crowd, did their best to add magic to the occasion, but Camilla hid behind her hat. There was no kiss for the cameras, which was probably just as well. Despite all the luvvies who were invited to the blessing, this marriage might just manage to be real rather than ritual.Reuse content