by Jerome Grapel.......
Quite coincidentally, I was in New York when the Pope made his --- wait, I’d like to rephrase. Being that I am a native New Yorker; and being that almost all my extended family still lives there; and being that Pope Francis had never been there, let’s put it like this: quite coincidentally, the Pope was in New York when I made my annual visit to my native land. Although he did not try to procure an audience with me, such coincidence put him in the cross hairs of my intellectual curiosity. And how could it not be so? For the 3 days he was in the great orb, indeed, for the whole week he was in the United States, his presence completely eclipsed any other form of media dissemination. Pope Francis did not visit America --- he invaded it.
To live in a news environment of such exclusive, omnipotent saturation, is to grow sick of it. It took me about 1 day to be thoroughly “Poped out” by all this. On the day I left for home, I sat in LaGuardia Airport with no other purpose then to wait, relax, and read my book in peace. Impossible. The CNN airport services, like the annoying pounding of a hip-hop song, had infiltrated every nook and cranny of existence. There was a small area near the boarding gate that seemed to be TV screen free. I took residence there but the audio aspects of the whole fandango could not be escaped. I closed my book. I closed my eyes. I shook my head. I wondered how much longer this hyper-stimulated, hyper-competitive, hyper-material, neurotic culture could go on?
Right out of the starting gate, Pope Francis raised expectations amongst those of us yearning for an improvement in the human condition. He talks about the abuses of --- he actually uses the word --- capitalism: its inability to distribute wealth fairly, its insensitivity to poverty, its aggressive nature, its incivility. He’d have us believe --- and maybe it is true --- he has a deeply felt sentiment for the most needy amongst us. He even talks about climate change, another problem brought on by the current form of capitalism. It is ironic, but this Pope’s popularity has been incubated simply because he shows signs of actually being a Christian. Cool. I’m always skeptical, but I’m still listening.
Why does this skepticism continue to cling to my resume?
One thinking with even a minimal amount of rational fundaments, can only surmise the Pope’s visit to America was, above all else, a huge public relations stunt. If we further dwell on this matter, the Catholic Church’s need for such a triumphant burlesque becomes paramount.
Over the last century or so, the Catholic Church cannot be considered a “growth industry”. Church attendance, especially in Europe, has been evaporating like an inland sea. In the United States, where religious practice still maintains a certain degree of strength, Catholic practice has been leaking towards the evangelical realms for decades. Candidacy for the clergy has been in decline and many seminaries have closed. All this, without even mentioning the sexual abuse scandals which seem to sprout like weeds on the lawn of Catholicism. And if that were not enough --- the Pope previous to Francis, a German whose professional name, I do believe, is Benedict, was a public relations disaster of Watergate proportions. In a world growing more and more flexible with regard to social issues, Benedict was that unmovable landslide blocking all transit down the road. Even worse was a personality reminiscent of that sadistic old nun in grade school who used her ruler as a lethal weapon. Add on the whispers about some kind of nefarious role he played in sexual abuse cover ups and Benedict becomes the prototypical wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Catholicism, the Papal State, the Pope and what he represents, whatever, is as much a political organization as a religious one. It has power, wealth, influence, and interests to protect. In such an environment, politics, not religion, becomes the Church’s driving force. When it was becoming evident Benedict was an error (a colossal error?), the political machinery was greased, oiled, and put into motion. Such action, in a world where verbal-pictorial communication has become instantaneous for almost everyone, cannot be delayed by any competitive political organization like the Catholic Church.
There was a time when being the Pontiff meant living a life we might refer to as more “worldly”. In certain eras of history, Papal behavior seemed more suited for the Playboy Mansion than any basilica of spirituality. In such a lascivious backdrop of power and luxury, it is not hard to envision the kinds of palace intrigues leading to the intentional elimination of rivals. But --- and check me if I’m wrong --- I know of no Pope who ever resigned.
Pope Benedict resigned! I’d call it a naïve notion to believe this was a personal decision incumbent only to him. For the Catholic Church, the idea that this dour man incapable of connecting to people could be the face of their organization for a decade or more, was simply unacceptable.
So the search began for someone warmer, fuzzier, more cuddly, for someone with the public relation skills necessary to be the reference point of one of the world’s most powerful political entities at a time when image dominates substance.
And that is how we got Pope Francis.
Such symbolic gestures as moving into more humble quarters at the Vatican, as using a little black Fiat as his personal car (something akin to showing up at the Westminster Dog Show with a common black mutt), began the endearing process almost immediately. And his political discourse, his “spontaneity”, his humanity … yeah, yeah, yeah …
Forgive me if my cynicism is precocious at this moment. In spite of it, I still have hopes for this Pope and how useful he might be in a world in desperate need of new direction. But an event like his visit to America --- which was undoubtedly meant to be the center piece of his Papacy --- further erodes my confidence.
While watching bits and pieces of this elaborate montage, I sometimes had the feeling I’d been transported back to the flamboyant grandeur of those ostentatious Busby Berkley musicals --- the perfectly choreographed religious processions in some of Christendom’s most elegant venues, the color coordinated Gucci-medieval fashion statement of the clergy, the chanting, the dirge-like music, the perfectly soft lighting, all culminating with the entrance of the leading man himself in the singular white of his own Armani clerical creation. Elegant, spiritual … Divinely perfect.
But let’s put all that aside and get back to Pope Francis and his “spontaneity”, his people skills, his warmth and compassion. There he was, the obligatory honky in Harlem, being serenaded by the heavenly sound of yet another black boys choir. Ahh, his sensitivity, his goodness, his empathy …
Ironically, it was just one of those “spontaneous” episodes that most fueled my doubts about this Pope. While drifting leisurely down the route of one of his innumerable Pope-mobile motorcades, through canyons of adoring fans hoping to get a glimpse of Elvis, and in the midst of one of the most spectacular security mobilizations since Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, a little Latino-skinned girl in the 4 or 5 year old range broke ranks with the mob and wandered onto the broad avenue. One of those plain clothed cops so obviously dressed as such, darted onto the pavement, grabbed her, and headed back to the curb. Francis, in all the glory of his spontaneous humanity, ordered the Pope-mobile to stop and motioned for the adorable child to be brought to him. This led to a salvo of platonic smooching, hugging, and touching compassion. The next day, I saw the girl being briefly interviewed on TV. She was bright, articulate and personable way beyond her years. She seemed drawn directly from central casting. She was no less than the Mexican-American version of Shirley Temple.
And I thought --- really?
And yet, in spite of the sickly cynicism of this writer, and with the constant backdrop of Big Media’s canonization of his every move, Pope Francis was killing it. His trip was a triumph. He was bigger than Beyonce. He was cruising into the 9th inning with a perfect game.
And then he hung a curve ball.
Kim Davis is currently living Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. She earned such distinction when, in her capacity as the County Clerk of some possum hunting backwater in rural Kentucky, she refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, as the law of the land demands.
For millenniums now, the Catholic Church has been hostile (and they are far from exceptions) to what much of humanity is beginning to accept as no more than a minority, but normal manifestation of nature. I would expect that somewhere down the line, some agilization in The Church with regard to homosexuality would begin. However, after so many centuries of doctrine, most of us realize this is still not the moment. If Francis had briefly spouted the party line, or, even better, just left it alone for now, almost all of us looking for an apex of enlightened leadership from him, could live with that.
Since the news broke of some kind of liaison or connection between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the word “ambiguity” has taken center stage. Did he actually meet with her, talk with her? Was it just a conference of clerics and academics she was in attendance at? Did he know she was there? Did he know who she was? In short, just what was the nature of all this?
Regardless of the answers to any of these questions, there is certainty in the following: nobody gets that close to the Pope without somebody knowing she is there and without somebody having asked her to come. To give that kind of legitimacy to an eye rolling Bible thumper who’d recently found Jesus after a lifetime siring a brood of children from a bevy of different studs in and out of wedlock, was a betrayal of Judas-like proportions. It was as if we’d just found out the Pope’s favorite TV show was Duck Dynasty.
If there were ever a time I wish my skepticism could be proven wrong, this is it. Time will tell.
I’d like to finish with the following anecdote: the New York Post is a Rupert Murdoch tabloid whose mission, like all of Murdoch’s enterprises, is to idiotize and mislead the masses. It is a publication that makes illiteracy an attractive option. The night before Pope Francis arrived to New York, the iconic baseball player Yogi Berra died. The next morning --- the day, I repeat, of the Pope’s arrival --- the front page of the Post was devoted to Yogi. In fact, I counted 15 pages of Yogi news in that edition, a page or 2 more than that devoted to the great Papal dignitary.
It was the only time I’ve ever agreed with anything the New York Post has done.