Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Rome and Mecca
“I am afraid: it puts me in mind of Mecca…I’d never thought people in Rome would resemble Muslims.” What an interesting remark. Quoted in the Italian left-wing weekly L’Espresso. By an unnamed Milan woman terrified by the amazing masses devoutly mourning the Pope’s death. What she imagines Muslims to be like, I wonder. Prayerful? Disciplined? Fervent? Hope so. How surprising, though, the fearful lady should have presumed those were not Christian qualities, as well…
Come on, Fr Frank. Perfectly obvious what she meant. You were in Rome yourself last week and witnessed it all. A bit like the Haj. Four million pilgrims descending on the Holy City. Italians and foreigners alike. Of all ages. An invasion at once peaceful and well-behaved. A flood of pious humanity thronging stations, roads, bridges, squares, the Metro, everywhere. Like around the Ka’aba, St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets filled solid with people. All of them willing to queue obediently, to stand in serried ranks for as long as twelve hours to pay their last homage to John Paul II. Modern, hedonistic, fat and secular Rome transformed into the irrational Holy City of the Middle Ages. Plenty to worry the non-religious, no?
Man, it certainly was memorable. Staying in the Domus Romana clergy house less than 800 yards from St Peter’s, I was right in the eye of the cyclone, so to speak. Probably half a million people processed under my second floor window every night on the way to see John Paul’s body. (White nights, yep, don’t laugh.) Most of them young. No fanatics. Actually, I managed to chat to a few people.
Dogmatic secularists determined to damn all forms of religious piety would call the Quakers fanatical. Maria Letizia, the doctor, certainly was no bigot. She combined admiration for the Holy Father’s personality and dissent from his strict moral teaching. Which brings me to an important point. It is too soon to draw a balance of this pontificate. Media hype is sensational and superficial. To call John Paul II ‘the greatest Pope in history’ is hyperbole, not sober judgment. Realistically, there are shadows, as well as lights. John Paul, giant as he was, did not manage (how could he?) to roll back the devastating ‘wild free-marketism’ and consumerism which, spreading like a plague from the West, are fast enveloping large parts of God’s globe. It is not spirituality which has possessed Holy Russia after communism’s collapse but another, pervasive, lethal form of materialism. Moreover, relations with the Orthodox Church are at a low ebb. Moscow’s Patriarch Alexei snubbed the funeral, sent a stooge instead. Paradoxically and, to some, painfully, John Paul’s prestige seems higher amongst Muslims than amongst many Eastern Christians…
Oh, yes. The Mecca connection. But is it real?
It depends. John Paul’s personal, indomitable opposition to Western assaults on Muslim lands such as Afghanistan and Iraq must not have passed unnoticed. And he is the first Pope in history to have kissed the Qur’an. Good Muslims also appreciate his strong, traditional Catholic stance on sexuality. Perhaps because our two religions share similar problems. Many of the same nice young people in Rome who grieved for the death of their beloved Father in God are unlikely, I suspect, to abide by Catholic morality on pre-marital sex. Likewise, an Iranian diplomat confided in me what is happening to his country’s youth in cities like Teheran. A fluent Italian speaker, he admitted, candidly: “Oggi le nostre belle citta’ sono diventate case di puttana” It made sense. Rome and Mecca may have a common battle to fight, it seems.
Fr Frank, so, what was the secret of the Pope’s popularity?
Oh, it’s simple. I figure it must boil down to his having been a good man. And his final, personal calvary. The way he bore his painful, humiliating last illness. All religions, Christianity especially, (the Cross!), offer hope, release from pain, from the horrors of illness, disease, decay and death. John Paul made himself into a living icon of how a frail, sick old man can bear, and so overcome, all that, openly, publicly, without fear of shame. He made an offering of his own person. A thing of enormous significance for us all.
Hey Father Frank, tell me which parish you preach in, I'd really like to attend you're Sunday service. I've made pilgrimage to both Mecca and St. Peter's square, the former for my God, and the latter to pay homage to historic Italian art.