Monday, August 16, 2010

"The Pope is Not Gay"

That's the title of a new book by Angelo Quattrocchi, reviewed by Colm Toibin in LRB. It sounds like a stupid book, the sort of thing that refers to Benedict XVI as "Ratzy," while pointing at his Prada shoes and snickering.

But the review is, by itself, an excellent if rambling essay. It is as thoughtful and sensitive a treatment of its subject -- Rome and the gays -- as one is likely to read in periodical literature.

One passage, however, struck us with particular force. It is easy to lose, since it occurs well into the piece, and isn't especially controversial, so we will quote generously. Toibin shares his own memory of seeing John Paul II's 1991 visit to Jasna Gora, the monastery of the Black Madonna:

We all watched entranced as Wojtyla walked up to the altar where he would address the crowd and say Mass. He moved slowly, hesitantly. There was one moment when he looked as though he could go no further, and when he turned he had that strange melancholy expression which was one of his signature looks, that mixture of bemusement and power. He walked as though he were in a state of reverie and contemplation, and then he turned and waved, not as a celebrity might wave, but rather as someone briefly distracted, oddly bewildered, with larger things on his mind. This spellbinding mixture of strength and weakness, the softness of his eyes against the hardness of his jaw and mouth, the power of his office and its burden, worked on the crowd, worked on all of us.

For six hours that night the pope sat at the altar with television lights beaming on him. He sat at first on his throne with his head in his hands, as if he were alone in prayer and contemplation. When he finally spoke, he was funny and welcoming. Later, in his sermon, he was serious. ‘During this night vigil,’ he said, ‘so full of feelings and enthusiasm, I would bring your attention, my dear young friends, boys and girls, to three terms that are our guides: “I am,” “I remember,” “I watch.”’ He did not mention sex once, or sin, or Church rules; he made no reference to what these young people must or must not do. He did not hector us. His words were suggestive, at times poetic. There was hymn singing; there were blessings in Latin; a large cross was solemnly carried to the altar.

Twice Wojtyla spent long periods with his hands over his face. The crowd below watched him, fascinated. All the lights were on him. It was hugely dramatic and unexpected, the pope unplugged, as it were. He was offering an example of what the spiritual life would look like; his message was mysterious and charismatic. If you did not know anything about the religion he represented, you would say that it was one of the most beautiful ever imagined, wonderfully speculative and exotic, good- humoured and sweet but also exquisite and exalted. While he lost nothing of his strength and power, the glory of his office, Wojtyla seemed at times almost sad about his own elevated position, suggesting that his real life was the one he spent alone in prayer and contemplation, the one we had seen when he sat without moving, his face covered. He was offering this rich private life of his to the crowd as the life they could have if they followed him.

This is a shockingly powerful moment, a reminder of what evangelism can look like. One thinks of Philips Brooks' idea of preaching as the communication of "truth through personality," a notion that is easy to mock, but only when it goes south. One also thinks of George Herbert, advising that the defining character of his Country Parson's sermon is "holiness."

Of course, the spell is broken when the liturgical moment ends. The next day, John Paul held a press conference, for no reason other than to declare that a woman had not slept in the monastery, recently or ever -- in other words, to assure the world that his church had remained faithful even to the most pointless of its rules. The spell is far more broken now, as both world Christianity and the world itself contemplate the freedom with which the Church's real rules, the essential ones, were violated, and the violators protected, and the victims denied justice, by prelates under John Paul's own leadership.

We have no special brief for John Paul, as we have no special animus against Benedict. Their job is incomparably difficult, and they are merely human. Many pastors, we imagine, are more impressive behind the pulpit than at a vestry meeting. Probably most.

We just can't help wondering what it would all be like if, through some miraculous reconfiguration of reality, what Toibin has seen at Jasna Gora had not been merely the truth (which we believe it was) but the whole truth. What if there were no more to it than that, than the communication of holiness, of "larger things," things "exquisite and exalted"? Parishes might run riot, what with all those otherworldly holy men running things. But the Church would surely be a better place.

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