“And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” 2Timothy 4:4.
I found this on YouTube the other day. I don’t know the context but I expect it’s part of a film since the camera keeps returning to a silly old biddy with tears in her eyes, and the musical score is triumphantly Protestant. At any rate, Pacelli’s nose is still intact so it was probably filmed some time in the 1940’s. It’s an extraordinary thing to watch, and rather disconcerting. Preceded by Swiss Guard, the pope is carried into St Peter’s on a sedia gestatoria and greeted by a throng of devotees, waving and clapping their hands and crying “viva il papa.” Pacelli begins by blessing the crowds but soon abandons this in favour of simply waving to them and basking in their adulation. He is carried around the high altar, blesses an infant and is then set down, greeted by a cardinal and accompanied to a throne before the altar. There he speaks briefly to the assembled people in Latin, Italian and German, before giving the Urbi et Orbi blessing. He then goes to greet the other cardinals and is carried out again, to more cries of “viva il papa.”
The pope has twice been in my presence; in Cologne in 2005 and at Hyde Park in 2010. In Marienfeld in 2005 I watched as pilgrims to “World Youth Day” rushed to get a closer look at the passing “popemobile,” trampling camping equipment in their hysteria. In 2010 I was pressured into going to see Benedict XVI by two women in my parish. I had already refused to attend a gala evening in honour of the pope’s visit to Britain at the Chislehurst Golf Club because, by this time, I had more or less abandoned the Popish creed, and only agreed to go to Hyde Park so as not to disappoint the children, to whom I was something of an avuncular figure. Nonetheless, I felt stifled and out of place and welcomed the phone call from my uncle, who had got in by waving his press pass. This afforded me an excuse to both abandon the traditionalists and have a nice (free) dinner. The next morning, however, I was thrust back into the hysterical milieu as I watched aghast at a priest who stood up and genuflected towards a television screen. The pope’s final mass was being televised in the parish club and he was giving his blessing.
There is no meaningful difference between the papal audience in the YouTube video and the events I have just described. The crowds are still there; they still cry out viva il papa. If the establishment in Rome had the prescience to abandon the tawdry, Baroque tat in favour of a white motorcar to better suit modern sensitivities, how is that different from all the spurious apologies made by John Paul II or the removal, by Benedict XVI, of the controversial prayer for the Jews on Good Friday? Rome may have been wrong about everything, but she was right in general! And she’s certainly still there. Tangentially, what always struck me during my time with the traditionalists was their unique knowledge of, and futile yearning for, all the quasi-imperial tat surrounding the popes of times past. Liturgical tradition was, to them, the suspicious by-product of the temporal power. This is confirmed by the hideous delight in the expression of that same genuflecting priest as he told me the story of Henry IV’s “road to Canossa;” but also in the traditionalists’ cavalier attitude to substituting feasts of considerable antiquity for newly-created papal ones. They are very materialistic.
I’ve spent some time since first watching the papal audience video thinking about the silly old biddy. My first reaction to her was hostile. I wanted to reach at her over the sundering years and shake her like a dog, bellowing with wrathful conviction: “this isn’t real! Get a bloody grip!” For I just cannot believe that her devotion to the Papacy comes from the wells of Christian piety. It seems to me that her devotion is vicarious, mistaken and sentimental; it’s dramatic emotionalism, and ultimately has no spiritual foundation. I speak as a pretty emotionless Englishman; I have wept copious tears in church only once in my life, and that was in the presence of the relics of blessed Thérèse of Lisieux, which I wrote about here (please forgive the saccharine tone of that post, by the way!). That was a religious experience, which nothing evil can counterfeit. By contrast, megalomaniacal popes whose bodies explode in their tombs do not provide genuine religious experiences; the “experience” lies with the people who idolise them, who have turned unto fables, as the Scripture says.
George Orwell wrote something fascinating about the futility of imperium in his essay Shooting an Elephant. You can read the whole text here. He says:
And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
I’ve met several nominally Papalist theologians over the years; stricken, tortured types who were always wondering whether they could resign their livings. One told me at a party that he rejected the Chalcedonian Definition (that was some party!); another in a private tutorial that he just about believed that St Mary the Mother of God existed! It would be interesting to know the depth of religious faith among high-ranking members of the Vatican establishment. Do they really believe all the rubbish? I wouldn’t be surprised if pope Francis, like Fr Jack Hackett, didn’t believe in God, and that he is just the oracle of an institution that provides him with three square meals a day and a nice room to sleep in! But, like George Orwell with his rifle, the natives expect a show. I’ve often said that the Papacy is all about perpetuating its existence into the next generation, and protecting the reputation of its vast institution. Pope Francis may have a somewhat insouciant disposition to the strict interpretation of his religion, itself a flicker of honesty, but I can’t imagine for a moment that he would allow that to erode at the integrity of the institution. He won’t because he can’t. This is the futility of the Roman imperium, with all its false teaching, laid bare: Pope Francis is a prisoner of those benign, teary-eyed old biddies. If they wanted him to shoot an elephant, I have no doubt that he would shoot.
Of course, there is an alternative for the teary old biddies. It’s summed up in the injunction: get a life!