At the End of the Tour

For many days now, I've felt the urge to write something about the passing of Ioannes Paulus II (to fall back on the Latin form now marking his grave). Links have been piling up, scraps of the web pulled almost at random from the passing torrent of media. Some of them might have led to interesting and topical posts in their own right, but in the end, attempting to blog the Week of the Pope felt a little too much like being a mosquitto in Pamplona.

And now perhaps a respectable time has passed, and the stampede is headed elsewhere. Time to reflect, for a touch of catharsis, a first turning of the mulch heap.

I'd have more to say if I'd been there, of course. And don't think it didn't cross my mind. But ultimately, there's little to distinguish my experience of the past week from that of any other Roman Catholic with a web browser and a few newspapers. Except for the fact that the Catholic population of Israel wouldn't fill St. Peter's Square, and if you only count the ones with whom I could plausibly communicate (i.e. non-Arabic speakers) they might not overflow a large church.

I read about the mass mourning. They shut down Italy, Poland, most of Latin America. The first long biographical obituary was touching, but I'm pretty sure nobody gained much from the sixth or seventh one. That it would become a media circus was inevitable. I don't get the New York Times or CNN here, but the phenomenon was just as palpable, one of having my head jammed into the wrong end of a telescope pointed at Rome. At the spectacle reduced to its broadest incoherent outlines, some impressively large numbers and a couple of stock human interest stories.

Like so many others, John Paul II is the only Pope I have known. He was elected several months before I was born, but my first awareness of him was more mundane. Once, an oversized Paddington hung in my bedroom, and his many pockets came to host quite a collection of buttons and pins over the years. I did not start this collection. I know this because one of the first buttons on Paddington's coat bore a picture of the Pope, which I assume my parents acquired during the attention surrounding his first whirlwind tour of the world in 1979. I saw him myself, once, a great mass of white robes waving from the Popemobile as all of San Antonio turned out to wave back, when he passed through in 1987.

At least, that is what my memory claims. It is always possible that I only saw him on TV, that I have constructed in hindsight that afternoon on my father's shoulders. I feel like I've asked my parents this before, but I forget what the answer was.

In the U.S., the media metanarrative has at least been entertaining, if mildly schizophrenic. I summarize:

Media: JP2 is dead. That's too bad, because he was a rock star, and defeated Communism while he was at it. A billion Catholics are sad.

Liberals: He gets too much credit for that, plus he squashed Liberation Theology and pulled the Church back towards medieval authoritarianism.

Conservatives: You bet. Plus, he thought rampant capitalism was a moral right. We know nobody remembers how they actually felt, so we'll just assert that he and Saint Regan were best buddies.

Other liberals: Not so fast. He opposed both Iraq wars and badgered the last four Presidents to abandon capital punishment and to be nicer to the poor.

Media: Okay, JP2 was a complex rock star who defeated Communism. A billion Catholics are sad, a few million of whom are camped out on the banks of the Tiber.

And so on and so forth. The major difference here is that all news is filtered through a Jewish perspective, as you might expect. Compare these two accounts of the Pope's will:

New York Times: Pope's Will Reveals Anguish Over Length of Papacy

Ha'aretz: Rome rabbi one of 2 living people mentioned in pope's will

Every Lent, John Paul II would write a new entry in his will. The final entries, written in his frail fading years, are devoted in large part to thanking various people and peoples, recognizing places and events of significance. Not the introverted musings of a dying man, nor the frantic last scribblings of a thinker running out of time. A gracious rock star, tired and retiring, bowing out to thunderous applause. Going home.

To show respect, for the living and for the dead, the Italians clap. The applause in Rome has been long and loud.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on April 10, 2005 10:34 PM.

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