Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Colm Tóibín on John Paul II's Visit to Dublin: "Mysticism and Mystery Followed by Authority and Power"

John Paul II and Marcial Maciel
When I first read Irish writer Colm Tóibín's eulogy of Pope John Paul II in the New York Times several days following the pope's death, I remember being struck by three points.  The first was how perfectly Tóibín captured the theatricality of John Paul II and his papacy.  Of everything John Paul did in the public eye, down to the minutest gesture.  

The second point was the stark ambivalence of who this pope was and what he stood for: the media-savvy warmth mixed with a private wariness that made the man anything but approachable, the celebration of freedom for Eastern Europe and the total denial of freedom within the structures of the church itself, the fatherly image unmixed with any discernible paternal affection, the heightened machismo celebrated by the media that seemed asexually devoid of any real concern for the embodied experience of lay Catholics.  Here's Tóibín on what he saw in 1991 when he was at the monastery of Jasna Gora as John Paul celebrated the vigil of the Assumption there:

I watched his face on one of the big screens. In repose he was managing still to be both the stern father and the kind uncle, allowing the considerable number of ambiguities in his being to amount to something powerful and touching and memorable. His eyes were kind and intrigued by things, but also guarded, almost weary, and then, watching him there under the fiercely sharp lights that Polish television shined on him, I studied his mouth, which seemed to me that night to belong to a different being, a more implacable and more stubborn man who would care deeply about discipline and doctrine. His eyes understood and forgave everything; his mouth and the set of his chin forbade deviation and did not want there to be any change. His power, as the night came to an end, arose from the tension between the two, the lure of the drama in his own physiognomy.

And finally, what struck me in Tóibín's remembrance of John Paul was, simply, the ah ha! of discovering that someone else saw in this pope what I saw.  That someone else felt that keen sword's edge of ambivalence in who this pope was and everything he did, a sword's edge that the multitudes of those cheering John Paul the Great, the rock-star pope, the media darling (and creation) seemed utterly to miss.

And so I wondered what it was in Tóibín's perspective that predisposed him to see as I myself had persistently seen, when I read what the pope wrote, or encountered him on television or in one single public event I attended, at which he presided, and which I've described previously on this blog.  Is it that Tóibín and I are both ambivalent about the church because we're gay, I wondered?  Or does something else account for this seeing that seems so at odds with what others see here?

And now I'm asking myself these questions all over again as I read Tóibín's wonderful book The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.  Where I find the following remembrance of what Tóibín saw when John Paul visited Dublin in 1979:  

I remember him descending from the aeroplane, dressed in white, a half-watchful smile, a half-pained look on his face.  He was attentive to people, it was easy to see that, while he remained distant, a fatherly prelate and a figurehead at the same time.  As he went to his helicopter I watched a woman approaching him who desperately wanted to touch him, or have him bless her.  She was an ordinary woman, not one of the dignitaries the Pope had been greeting.  I tried at the time to describe this moment as though it was important, because the Pope was not on show, there were no television cameras or photographers.  I saw that the Pope noticed the woman, but he was determined now to continue.  She followed and there was a sort of panic in her eyes as she called out to him.  And then I saw his face change from that soft warmth to something else, something tougher.  He was not going to pay any attention to the woman.  I don't know why I thought this was so important during his time at the airport.  But now his face hardened completely.  It was a strange, funny moment.  It hardly mattered.  And yet it stayed with me for the rest of his visit.  At that time we knew almost nothing about him (p. 7).

And then on to the papal Mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin, where Tóibín had a press pass and was seated in a front row--a Mass he found "pure drama," "Fellini's Roma mixed with an elaborate tableau from the Inca period" (ibid.).  And where the pope began by speaking about liturgical celebration and ended by speaking about sex, where he --as Tóibín puts it--won the crowd over with theatricality and followed by hectoring his now-captive audience.  "Mysticism and mystery followed by authority and power"--but, as Tóibín notes, no one else saw it this way, and what he wrote about John Paul at that time was not published (p. 8).

And as I read this eyewitness account of John Paul's behavior--of his tragically ambivalent presence--on two separate occasions by an insightful writer with a novelist's eye, I ask myself all over again: how can what seems so obvious to some of us about this pope be so utterly hidden from those pushing for his immediate canonization?  For some of us, the velvet glove of this pope and his reign always comprised an iron fist, and that fist smashed quite a few members of the people of God who deserved the pope's support and love, and not the fist: women; theologians, and liberation theologians in particular; gays and lesbians, etc.

But as we've since learned, the fist that did not hesitate to come down hard on the heads of some Catholics never once manifested itself in his dealings with people like Marcial Maciel, no matter how outrageously destructive Maciel's behavior, which involved sexual abuse of seminarians, fathering children by several women while he headed the Legionaries of Christ, raping some of his own children, spreading money around lavishly in the Vatican to bribe Curial officials, using illicit drugs.  For Maciel, and for all the bishops in the church who have actively protected clerics abusing children, there was nothing but support.  All velvet.  No fist.

And despite the tragic ambivalence of this legacy, which makes John Paul not a figure of heroic sanctity for some of us, but, in key respects, yes, I'll say it bluntly, a countersign to the gospel, this pope is soon to be beatified.  And it appears that, as this happens, the only choice those of us who see the ambivalence, the contradictions described so sharply by Colm Tóibín, will have is to keep quiet.  As we've been told to do ever since John Paul came on the scene and seized center stage and the bright lights.

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