[extropy-chat] article: The world bids farewell

Amara Graps Amara.Graps at ifsi.rm.cnr.it
Sun Apr 10 06:19:03 UTC 2005

Oh, this is *good*. I was smiling all of the way through.
The reporter is irreverent, like me, and he could see the
humor in the spectacle of the last week, and at the same
time be touched by it all. I think that his perspective
is the most useful for us to understand what this
particular Pope meant to many people. I've extracted some
excerpts below, but I recommend reading the whole

The world bids farewell

Bryan Appleyard watched in awe as the funeral of Pope
John Paul II turned into the greatest show on earth


{begin quote}

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.


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 Roman life.

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 beneath.


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

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

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

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.


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.

{end quote}


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