We are making gods out of global celebrities

The tributes to the Pope have been couched in almost identical terms to those paid to Diana
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The Independent Online

Of course the Prince of Wales had to postpone his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles until Saturday. The hierarchy of celebrity culture is brutal, and a civil ceremony at Windsor's Guildhall Council Chamber on Friday could hardly compete with the obsequies of a prince of the church in the splendour of Vatican City. Only an event involving someone of equivalent global stature - Diana, Princess of Wales, if she wasn't already deceased - would have caused even a moment's heart-searching for the handful of VIPs who inconveniently found themselves invited to both.

Of course the Prince of Wales had to postpone his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles until Saturday. The hierarchy of celebrity culture is brutal, and a civil ceremony at Windsor's Guildhall Council Chamber on Friday could hardly compete with the obsequies of a prince of the church in the splendour of Vatican City. Only an event involving someone of equivalent global stature - Diana, Princess of Wales, if she wasn't already deceased - would have caused even a moment's heart-searching for the handful of VIPs who inconveniently found themselves invited to both.

Faced with the prospect of no-shows by the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prince Charles bowed to the inevitable, a decision that cannot have done much for his self-esteem. I don't suppose it is much comfort, as Charles contemplates this confirmation of his second-rank status, to remind him of the plight of Prince Rainier of Monaco, whose grave illness dropped out of the headlines in spite of the near-permanent residence of the Monagesque royal family in celebrity bibles such as Hello! and Oggi!

The Pope's funeral already has a starry cast, including President Bush, Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela, as well as wannabes such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who clearly hopes to use the occasion to demonstrate that he is one of the good guys. In terms of sheer spectacle, it promises to rival the send-offs of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.

By chance, the Pope's lying in state coincides with the third anniversary of the public viewing of the body of the Queen Mother in Westminster Hall; interviews with mourners in Rome reveal similar sentiments, including a desire to be present on a historic occasion and to pay respects to the dead. The tributes to John Paul II have been couched in almost identical terms to those paid to Diana, praising his compassion, his ability to connect with ordinary people and (in what sounds like a parody of a John Lennon song) his commitment to peace and love.

This is not so much history in the making as myth-making on a grand scale; it has become clear in the last decade that the deaths of certain public figures act as a focus for feelings that have few outlets in secular modern society. That, I think, is why so many lapsed and non-Catholics have joined the crowds in Rome, participating in the kind of communal ritual that used to be supplied on a weekly basis by the Christian church.

More worryingly, global celebrities like Diana and John Paul II have begun to take on some of the attributes of deities; the late Princess has not yet performed miracles, as far as I know, but in the Pontiff's case it is only a matter of time. The kind of worship these modern-day cults inspire is less onerous and more open to individual interpretation than organised religion, but hardly more tolerant of heretics.

In a book to be published next week, Professor Fred Halliday writes about a "strengthening of myth and emotional claims" in contemporary culture that militates against a "critical, historically sceptical perspective on myth, symbol and language". Halliday's book is called 100 Myths About the Middle East, but his remarks could scarcely be more pertinent to the cloying atmosphere that has followed John Paul's death.

These modern myths are seldom difficult to deconstruct; the scope for paternal and maternal identifications - Holy Father, Queen Mother, Princess Diana's informal approach to motherhood - are obvious. Aspects of the dead person's character are selected and magnified while others, notably Diana's neurotic self-obsession and the Pope's pathological aversion to sexual love, are airbrushed out.

At the same time, extravagant claims are made with no less force for the fact that they do not stand up to a moment's critical scrutiny. I am not just thinking of the Mail on Sunday's confident front-page assertion last weekend that John Paul II is already in heaven.

Three years ago, observing the long queues to view the Queen Mother's body, monarchists confidently hailed a revival in popularity of the British royal family, a claim as flimsy (ask Charles and Camilla) as some of those currently being made on behalf of the Pope. While his intransigence on homosexuality, women priests and contraception has been mentioned, few commentators have remarked on the paradox of the leader of so thoroughly undemocratic an organisation as the Roman Catholic church being hailed as a champion of freedom and democracy - or the fact that this doughty opponent of communism was little short of Stalinist in his intolerance of dissent and relentless centralisation of power.

As in the week following Diana's death, it is impossible to listen to the public discourse around the funeral arrangements of John Paul II without feeling a growing sense of unreality. Meanwhile in Clarence House, formerly the residence of the Queen Mother and now the London home of Prince Charles, the engaged couple must be wondering what further calamities can befall their plans between now and Saturday. Pity poor Camilla, who kissed a prince only to see him turn into a B-list celebrity.

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