Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Pope on vacation: let the poor man take a break!

Now I'm as keen as the next Benedetto fanatic to see cutesy pictures of the Pope, as below for his welcome to the Northern Italian city of Bressanone (all via the Papa Ratzinger forum). But the media obsession with his every move, and particularly his allegedly increased 'pastoral' focus, does raise a few issues about the role and perception of the Pope that are picked up today in a post by Fr Zulsdorf analysing reactions to the Pope's Australian visit.


The welcome the Pope received at Bressanone was certainly a warm one, illustrated by the cake below and the cheering crowds.

And the Pope seemed to be enjoying himself amidst the display of local folk culture.

All the same, there is something somewhat disturbing about the obsessive attention being given to his every move. Take for example this Zenit report:

"Benedict XVI continues with his vacation in the seminary of Bressanone in the mountains of northern Italy, while some 260 journalists and technicians hover outside "spying" on his days of rest."

So far he hasn't given them much, according to Zenit:

"The Pope is spending his vacation in prayer, study, rest and silence. According to L'Osservatore Romano, each afternoon, he takes a walk with his brother, Georg Ratzinger, and his personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein.Since July 28, when the Holy Father arrived at the seminary, he has not left the grounds, and news for the journalists is growing ever more scarce."

Some of the 'news' stories being put out in the absence of anything concrete to go on are hilarious. Take this brilliant speculation on what he is writing:

"The director of the Vatican press office has told reporters that during his current vacation in Bressanone, Italy, Pope Benedict XVI might be drafting a new book, an encyclical-- or something entirely different...."

It then goes on two spin two more paragraphs basically saying we haven't got a clue!

Blogdom, of course, is a major driver for this focus on papal trivia - we publish the photos, hold caption competitions, and generally feed the obsession of the modern age with people in positions of power or prominence. And I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. But I do wonder whether it really does anything positive for the Church.

On the one hand it does reinforce the (ostensibly discarded!) idea of the Pope as monarch of the Church. But equally, it seems to put him on the same plane as people such as the Queen of England and Australia who has little real role in the governance of her realms, and rock and film stars who have absolutely nothing of substance to offer.

I have to confess that one of my favourite movies is an old film starring Tom Conti as the Pope, called Saving Grace. It is absolutely dreadful theologically - filled with liberation theology amongst other things - but rather endearing all the same. Basically the storyline is that the Pope, sick of an endless round of public appearances and photo ops, and feeling frustrated at his inability to do much about the state of the world or the Church, runs away to help a small dispirited village recover its faith. Meanwhile back at the Vatican, his minions are pretending he is ill and unable to see anyone.

I was reminded of all this by the following rather sad line in Pope Benedict XVI's welcome speech at Bessanone:

"I will probably not be seen much on the streets of Bressanone, but in my heart I will always be strolling through the streets of the city and be in your midst."

Personally, I hope he puts on mufti and manages to sneak out past the battalion of encamped reporters undetected for a little sausage, strudel or that slice of pizza. Or maybe he isn't really still in the seminary at all....

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