Papal Visits: What Besides The Headlines?
I am very sorry to tell you if you clicked here hoping to find the usual copy-and-paste blog post about the last papal trip you will have to click somewhere else. The same applies if you want to read what has been said thousands of times before, and will be said thousands of times in future: the young are the future, the papal visit has inflamed so many hearts, Pope wants peace, and water is wet.
This blog is of a rather more critical and, if you wish, more cynical nature, and his humble author tries to understand what results these papal visits achieve rather than to dish the soup warmed one thousand times already.
Mexico, then. I have lived the Papal visit in the UK in September 2010, have seen the masses it has attracted – this was really a surprise much different from the “water is wet”- newsline, considering the climate which the BBC & Co. had tried to create and the popularity deficit of the present Pontiff if compared to the former one – and even so I can tell you, eighteen months later, that the papal visit has left no permanent mark whatsoever. On the contrary, whilst eighteen months ago the so-called homo-marriage was not in the cards, it has now become a very real possibility, and euthanasia has started to make its first timid steps towards official – first judicial, than legal, as it happens very often over here – recognition.
One is, therefore, forced to ask oneself what use these papal visits are, if after the departure of the Pontiff the local clergy – generally the most immediate cause of problems – is left in the same dismal state as it was before.
The use is, I am tempted to say, the headlines. A bit of PR here, a bit of headlines there, a bit of smoke a bit everywhere. It seems to work as an alternative to serious action, as we see that serious action never follows the quest for the headlines; and when people start to wonder, you can always plan the next visit.
The harsh reality is that a papal visit is the equivalent of a straw fire in your own fireplace, generating a very short phase of beautiful flame followed by, pretty much, nothing.
One could say that the world Catholics need – or have a right, even; all read already – to see their Pontiff. This is a novel concept, never applied in the past two thousand years of Catholicism. It is also a rather impracticable one, as if you accept Catholics are entitled to the expectation of a papal visit you had better expect the Pope doing nothing else than travelling. Besides, we are in the age of internet and tv, with the Pope accessible everyday to a large part of the planet’s Catholics.
I am a very old-fashioned man. In my world, the Pope is the man who sits in Rome and cares for his job of successor of Peter pretty much from there; whereas the work of evangelisation is mainly directed by those appointed for the job (they are called, then, bishops) and executed in daily life by their aides (they are called, then, priests) or people sent ad hoc (they are called,, then, missionaries).
If the Church on the ground does not work, no amount of papal visits will ever manage to let it work. If the Church on the ground works, a Papal visit is a nice addition but is in the end not needed.
This point is, it seems to me, sorely neglected. The Church in Germany does NOT work, and the – if I remember correctly – two papal visit there from Pope Benedict have achieved pretty much nothing in improving things. The same goes for the visit in England, though here the impressive popular participation was unexpected; but again, notwithstanding that pretty much nothing happened as a direct result of the visit.
One could say that in England the reintroduction of the meatless Friday was due to the Papal visit, but I would disagree; this was a decision of the bishops all right, taken one year later, to pay some lip service and compensate for a continued disregard of orthodoxy, and for which the anniversary of the papal visit was merely a convenient excuse, to try to give themselves some credentials for their otherwise dismal lack of action.
The same goes for all the talk of the local hierarchy being oh so energised, and the faithful oh so enthusiastic. Bad bishops will continue to be bad exactly in the same way, and poorly catechised Catholics to use contraception exactly like before.
I am, I am sure, not the only one who wishes the Popes (the former one, the present ones and, no doubt, the next one) would dedicate less time to flying around the world and show more decisiveness in dealing with the vast, but plain to see and rather easy to deal with problems of the Church particularly in the West (it’s not difficult, really: you kick out the bad bishops and substitutes them with good ones. There’s no other way, though I admit it’s more controversial than travelling). You can’t substitute decisiveness with air miles, and your bad bishops won’t become better because suddenly inspired by your visit.
The problem is, when the Popes is gone the problems remain exactly the same, and the headlines are very short-lived anyway. Seriously: what has changed in England? What in Germany? What would a visit to Austria change?
I wonder how many foreign trips Pius IX ever made, and how many Catholics were angry because he never visited them; but again, Pius IX didn’t seem very interested in headlines, either.