[Paleopsych] The Times: The World Bids Farewell
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Sun Apr 10 16:58:57 UTC 2005
The World Bids Farewell
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-1561601_4,00.html et seq.
Bryan Appleyard watched in awe as the funeral of Pope John Paul II turned into
the greatest show on earth
A dead man, an old Pole, lies before an altar, his corpse tilted at an awkward
angle that makes one slightly too aware of his shoes. People come to see him,
millions of people. Many have travelled thousands of miles and all have waited
long hours in the too warm Roman spring days and the too cold spring nights.
When they reach his body, they are not allowed to stop moving but they each
perform quick rituals.
Typically, they cross themselves, raise a phone to take a picture, genuflect
and blow a kiss at the body. It is all over in seconds. And then they are
outside again, dazed but certain - certain they have been granted a glimpse of
the truth. Certain that they have had a part in the greatest show on earth.
Karol Wojtyla was always a theatrical type. As a young man he wrote plays and
worked in the theatre. He never lost his touch. As John Paul II, Supreme
Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, holder of the keys to the Kingdom, he still knew how
to make them gasp in the stalls. He knelt and kissed the ground, he held up
babies and, in 1979, he told the Poles not to be afraid and to be "strong with
love which is stronger than death". It was, in retrospect, one of the most
dramatic moments of the 20th century. Ten years later communism collapsed, its
rotten foundations exposed by a showman priest.
Last week he did it again. Nothing became this star in life like the leaving
of it. Every agonising moment of his decline was chronicled and photographed.
Who can forget the dove that would not fly away or his hopeless attempts to
bless the crowd? And then, just by being dead, he made the world watch.
His funeral on Friday was theatre of an other-worldly grandeur and perfection.
The austere cypress coffin, massed scarlet ranks of cardinals, the black suits
of the powerful and the flags and banners of the powerless were all arranged by
a master director before the mighty masonry of St Peter's. John Paul made the
world look, as it always has done, at Rome, still the city where it all
The first thing I notice as I turn into the Via della Consiliazione very early
on Wednesday morning is the staggering, unreal facade of the Basilica, all pale
creams in the weak sun. The second thing I notice is the door through which the
pilgrims are entering. It is hung with red velvet curtains that could have come
straight from the Palladium. Make 'em laugh, John Paul, make 'em cry. And the
third thing I notice is that, yet again, the world has come to Rome, the street
is choked with an extraordinarily compacted river of pilgrims.
No, let me modify that. The world has come to the Vatican. On the other side
of the Tiber, they're just doing what Romans do - abusing drivers, arguing,
shouting, sounding their horns, drinking poisonously strong coffee and buying
Eurotrash clothes. On the Spanish Steps the backpackers sun themselves and
stare blankly back down the Via Condotti. Tourists trudge dutifully towards the
Colosseum. The cats in the ruins stretch and yawn. It's another day in the
Here and there, however, are posters with pictures of the old showman, most
just with the caption "Grazie", but some saying Rome weeps. One shows him being
blessed by Christ. Finally, in the window of the Prada shop in Via Condotti, a
tasteful card is displayed amid the costly bags and clothes. "Via Condotti
Association," it says, "mourns the death of Pope John Paul II."
He didn't like the consumer society any more than he liked communism, but the
Italians can live with this. They have always worn the cloak of Catholicism
lightly, allowing it to blow sexily open and expose the Mediterranean paganism
So the multinational millions - more in total than the entire population of
the city - are being funnelled into the Vatican. The scale of this operation
becomes clear when you reach the roadblock at the end of the Corso Vittorio
Emmanuele. The bridge beyond is full of people and police and, as the day wears
on, the queue extends down the river. People here will have to wait between 12
and 20 hours to see John Paul.
But they are quiet and, on television, I note this gives the impression of a
certain serenity. On the ground it feels more like quiet desperation. One
American woman with a toddler on her shoulders says she gave up queueing, angry
with the behaviour of the police who move the crowd forward in blocks of
several hundred and forcibly stop people leaving these blocks. The best way to
get out is to fake a medical emergency - fainting is okay, but most people
advise exhibiting stroke or heart attack symptoms. This will get you into the
Red Cross tents and a sympathetic policeman should preserve your place in the
The blocks are led by solemn ranks of stewards holding hands. As they are
released from their imprisonment, they cheer and try to run, crying "Avanti!
Avanti! Avanti!" The nuns seem to handle it best, especially the older ones.
With a fierce "Permesso!" they shove their way past any obstacle and who's
going to argue? But the really weird thing is the catastrophic lack of
lavatories combined, perversely, with the huge supply of bottled water. There
are said to be 3,500 temporary toilet blocks. Well, there aren't. There are
also said to be 500,000 litres of water handed out daily to the pilgrims. Well,
it was much more than that.
Boxes of bottles are everywhere and more are constantly being brought in by
lorries and then shifted about by forklift trucks. But, if they drink the water
they'll want to go to the loo, but they can't, so they don't. As a result,
bottle mountains are piling up with people using them as chairs, tables and
even beds. Men and women in vivid uniforms - some are called Protezione Civile;
others, happily, Maltesers - are waving bottles at the crowd.
Some water, of course, does get drunk, but this makes things worse. The narrow
lanes which officials and journalists are allowed to patrol become clogged with
empties. At one point, I spin round at what sounds like machinegun fire. But it
turns out to be a forklift exploding hundreds of empties as it trundles in with
yet more crates of fulls.
One elderly man in a Protezione Civile jacket is handing out little packets. I
stare in disbelief. They appear to be condoms. Surely not here, not now. I ask
him what it is. "Zucchero," he says - sugar. He smiles and gives me some.
The crowd is an electromagnetic swamp. Mobiles are cutting out because of
"congestion" as everybody phones home for lack of anything better to do in the
queue. At one end of the street, staring back at St Peter's, is a gypsy camp of
television satellite dishes and platforms for anchors to strut their stuff. Six
big screens relay scenes from inside the Basilica, and sermons and readings are
issuing from huge loudspeaker stacks. Occasionally one is in English.
Saul Bellow and Prince Rainier, I learn, are dead. Weird, these fatal
clusters. I remember the night before Princess Diana's funeral telling people
in the crowd of the death of Mother Teresa. They didn't believe me.
This crowd is vast and, as the day wears on, it is getting much bigger. Adding
to the general level of anxiety, everybody is talking about the trains bringing
in 2m Poles overnight. The number is too big to be true and the night trains
have the threatening air of an uneasy dream - trains and Poland are a bad mix,
historically speaking. In addition, of course, the Poles think he's their Pope,
not the Italians'. A turf war is in the offing.
The people-river comes to a full stop at the edge of the great piazza. The
area enclosed by Bernini's sensational colonnade - the arms of the church
embracing the world - is kept startlingly empty. When the police are ready, a
block is released to move across the empty space to the steps. Even here, they
are still three hours away.
It's all overwhelming and yet, for me so far, oddly unmoving, like seeing the
crowds of the hajj at Mecca. I feel impressed but uninvolved. But then
something very strange happens. I try to contact an old acquaintance,
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, via his Birmingham diocese. And the moment I do, he
appears in front of me. He seems unsurprised by the coincidence. Indeed, he
seems to have been expecting it.
Over lunch, he talks of "institutional longing" as the theme of the week.
"Forty years ago a royal wedding would never have given way to a papal funeral.
Okay, it's a slightly odd royal wedding. People want lodestars, a framework.
And all John Paul said was that human affairs fall to pieces in the absence of
Nichols is fierce and enthusiastic. He speaks of the way John Paul II put
culture and ways of life before politics. The people saw that he was talking to
them, not to his position. I begin to see the tiring immensity of the crowd not
as dutiful observance but as a spontaneous expression of folk religion. Indeed,
I then start to notice little wayside shrines everywhere. They consist of
candles, flowers, cuddly toys, children's drawings and messages to John Paul.
At the feet of some of the Bernini columns wax has flowed down, forming
brilliant lines against the old stones. Even the base of the obelisk at the
very centre of the piazza is covered in these crude offerings.
Nichols is right. There was some personal connection between the people and
this man. "I'd never been interested in popes before," says pilgrim Mary
Stewart from Port Glasgow, "but he had the most beautiful hands. And he
travelled to meet people, he came out of the Vatican."
There is talk, that night, of closing the line, preventing more people
joining. The next morning the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele is almost empty, the rear
of the queue is on the far side. Crunching their way along, the people look
like survivors of some mighty plastic bottle battle.
And the Poles have definitely arrived. Red-and-white flags are everywhere, as
are flamboyant varieties of national dress. One group of old soldiers stands
solemnly amid the crowd in white feathered hats, bearing regimental standards.
The Poles have changed the mood. The day before, the crowd had been
predominantly Italian. And, true to their pagan ways, they had treated it like
a carnival. They didn't wave flags. But the Poles do. This is nationalism for
them, not just religion. The turf war is already over. The Poles have won.
This has caused some resentment. About four hours from the body is a party
from Atherley School, Southampton. It's not a Catholic school and their Rome
trip had been fixed months ago. But, since they were here, 30 of them had
decided to queue with their teacher. It was now 8am, they'd started at 10pm the
night before. They had just been about to advance one block when thousands of
Poles were let in ahead of them. "It wasn't fair!" chorus the girls.
But they had to come, they all agree. "It's a historical moment. If we hadn't,
we'd have regretted it."
Up ahead, I notice two Solidarity flags from the Gdansk shipyard where the
revolt against the Soviet empire began and I am, at last, lost in the occasion.
We can talk about John Paul's legacy until hell freezes over but, if history
has a right side, he was on it in Poland in 1979. Being great is being where
and when you are supposed to be. Solidarity indeed.
Dodging through the Bernini columns, I make my way to where the pilgrims are
emerging from the Basilica. I ask a group of Irish people what they felt when
they saw the body. "A certain calm acceptance," says Stephen Byrne.
"Overwhelmed and sad, he was a great man," says Mary Nagle. "A great sense of
reverence, a really religious sense," says Declan Ivory.
A massive exhaustion is settling over the whole area. There is a huge pile of
brown blankets, which I take to be discarded until I see four pairs of trainers
protruding. People are improbably asleep on vertiginous staircases or almost
under the feet of the crowd. They have just got out of the Basilica and keeled
"Serving the Lord with all humility of mind," booms out of the loudspeakers.
And, the speaker might have added, exhaustion of body.
I am beginning to see what is going on here. It is a matter of identity. In
ordinary life, we are used to people making efforts to blend in. But here
everybody wants you to know who they are, where they are from and what they
There are the Poles, of course. But there are also a bewildering,
hallucinatory mass of religious orders, monks, nuns and priests in an
astonishing range of clothes. Then there are the other nations. I see hands
holding up crude cardboard signs. One just says "Fatima", another is held up by
an old hand and reads "Des Moines, Iowa, USA". This is Erazm Rokipinicki, a
62-year-old Pole who lives in America. When the Pope went to Poland, his
daughter, Dorata, was chosen to give him flowers. Erazm felt he had to come and
queue. He also felt he had to hold up his sign of belonging.
Most directly, there is the act of self-location in the faith itself. Therese
Ivers, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, wants to be a "consecrated virgin" and
defends fiercely John Paul's conservatism. "We know that Muslims and Jews don't
eat pork. It's the same with abortion, contraception and euthanasia. That's
what it's like to be a Catholic, that's what it means."
And then the second truly strange event occurs. I see John Paul II in the
crowd, wearing a back-to-front baseball cap. "You do know you look just like
him," I say. "I wish," says Billy Mulhall, a 68-year-old landscape gardener
from Donegal. "I prayed all last week for the Blessed Mother to take my life
instead of his. He's the only Pope I've taken to - so outspoken. I love the
That night, the "dignitaries" - odd word for this motley crew - hit town.
Absurdly large fleets of police motorcycles, Lancia Themas and S-Class Mercedes
go screaming through the streets.
The Roman authorities have been advertising their security measures. The
place, we are assured, is as tight as a drum.
Well, frankly, it isn't. With a Vatican press pass that could have been used
by anybody - it had no photograph - I could go more or less where I liked.
There were no checks on the crowd. The only effective anti-terrorist device I
could see was confusion and that, I have to admit, was pretty good.
And so, Friday. The Roman roads aren't empty, as we were promised. The sky is
empty but for two helicopters. Police cars block approach roads to the Vatican.
Press pass flying, I stride confidently over the Ponte and am immediately
buried by most of Warsaw. Police have randomly closed off the old pathways.
Panic-stricken, I finally find a cop in yet another baroque variation of
Italian police uniform who lets me out. After a truly hallucinatory passage
across the piazza, in which I seem to be whirled about in a kaleidoscope of
priests, bishops, cops and Swiss Guards, I find myself at the top of the
colonnade looking down and across the facade.
It is hard to describe the spectacle. To the left it looks medieval, to the
right renaissance. The VIPs - 2,500 of them with five queens, four kings and 70
presidents or prime ministers; and the churchmen - bishops in purple, cardinals
in red, eastern church in black, priests in white - form a geometric pattern in
between the straight arms of the colonnade. There is a patterned, Persian-style
rug on which the coffin will rest, an altar draped in white and a large
crucifix. Swiss Guards in their beautiful Michelangelo uniforms frame the hard,
But to the left, encircled by Bernini's arms, are the people - ragged,
chaotic, flag-draped, stricken with sanctity and passion. Flags bearing shields
and insignia give a heraldic air to the image. A vast painting has been brought
And there is tension. The people want something from these robed hierarchs.
They want the Pope, of course, but they also want him placed in heaven. A huge
banner and a chant proclaim "Santo subito" - make him a saint at once.
The coffin appears and they all applaud wildly, even some of the priests, even
some of the hacks. I've never seen a coffin clapped before. The cardinals kiss
the altar, their robes fluttering wildly in the wind, a brilliant dramatic
touch. And then old, clever, hardline Cardinal Ratzinger slips into the
liturgy, his voice frail but piercing even in all that immensity. The people
fall quiet. Walking through them later in the service, the weight of their
piety presses heavily down upon me.
I feel ashamed with my stupid press pass and my silly, purposeful striding
through all this sanctity. There are 3,500 hacks like me. What are we
reporting, what could we possibly aspire to report of these people's feelings?
Well, we can report the facts. It was probably the biggest funeral ever. Two
million pilgrims had filed past the body. Two million or perhaps many more had
been in Rome on the day of the service. About 300,000 had crammed into the
Vatican. Another 800,000 watched it on a giant screen in a field near Krakow.
Two billion people watched it on television. The last time a Pope died, the
world barely noticed. This time, even slimeballs such as Robert Mugabe were
gagging to get in on the act.
Or we can report the truth. John Paul II, Karol the old theatrical, was, as
everybody agreed, different. He defied the two greatest evils of the 20th
century, communism and Nazism, and prevailed. He then defied modernity by
insisting on the hard intellectual, physical and imaginative labour required by
true religion and by telling the people they were nothing without God. He
understood, with T S Eliot, that the Christian revelation could be "hard and
bitter agony". He insisted on deep thought and on the value of suffering. He
represented everything the therapeutic, self-seeking society is not. He defied
all our vanities.
He was, in short, a giant and there he was in a box on a rug. It is hard to
imagine what we have done to deserve such a death.
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