I was sitting in front of the TV, looking at images of the Papal Visit. It was a dream so there were a lot of things that are not entirely rational, you understand.
The first thing I remember are the cars lined up at the airport waiting for the guests. A long line of midnight blue Mercedes S-Class and Jaguar XJs, with some Lancia Thesis in the back (I always liked that car, you know. These things always play a role in a dream). “Carabinieri” everywhere, in their usual perfectly elegant black suits with red stripes. Near them, the MET policemen with their yellow thingies and triple bulletproof jackets look like apprentice clowns. All cars have Vatican diplomatic flags and make a rather impressive show of power. Not “spit us in the face and we’ll be telegenic”-power, but rather “we can make the PM unemployed”-power. David Cameron looks slightly green.
It being a dream, at the center of the long line there is a wonderful Mercedes 600, also midnight blue. “Beautiful, that they have decided to use it again”, I think. The BBC commenter is saying that that is the car of the Pope, but the curtains don’t allow to look in. “Very good again”, I think in my dream, “this means that the years of the Pope trying to be a pop star are gone”. No “ice cream van-looking” Popemobiles in sight, with the Holy Father in it treated as if he was an exotic animal just come in from far away and you almost wait for people throwing peanuts at him. I breathe the air of dignity, of importance, of authority the long line of cars clearly conveys. The message is unmistakable. The Pope is not visible, but in everyone’s mind. Exactly his being not visible is what puts him so clearly on the stage.
And in fact, I seem to hear that even in the voice of the BBC commenter (it was a dream, so I knew that he was sipping from a finely etched champagne flute; but again this fact was totally natural to me, as if I wasn’t expecting anything different); there is in him a sense of awe, of occasion. His subdued, almost hushed voice is a clear sign that the long line of cars, the strange but awfully prestigious oldtimer in the middle, the obvious show of power, all demand respect in no uncertain terms. Much as he would have wanted to he can’t avoid feeling, well, rather insignificant. Being a journalist, he hates that.
He has prepared a long list of “reflections” about paedophile priests, wymyn “dissent”, priest celibacy, london buses and the like. They all sounded very intelligent and oh so progressive in a champagne-sipping way when he was rehearsing them, careful to get the right amount of patronising smugness in his tone. Now he realises that they would just feel stupid. Stupid like a petty quarrel put in front of the Mistery, or like a spoiled aggressive child trying to kick a splendid oak. The shamelessness of the display is in such contrast with the modern fake modesty he is accustomed to (PMs in jeans, or jackets without tie; fake informality; “I am just one of you”-atmosphere) that he is ten meters in offside before he even realises it. He knows that all this is wanted and he knows what everyone is thinking: this is not a PM playing “one of the people”. This is a glimpse of the splendour of Christ.
“Cunning bastards”, he thinks whilst sipping; still, he feels the awe and is fascinated by how it works even on him, against his will.
The helicopters continue to film the line of cars. The motorbikes are on both sides, huge crowds greet the Pontiff as the cars drive solemnly by; some close-up pictures show young women in girlish excitement, old ladies in tears , fathers holding up their children to allow them to see (it was a dream, so no health & safety madness here). They are driving along Constitution Hill now and making it all blue, and already the cars enter Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles is standing in the forecourt, in a traditional Arab dress, ready to welcome the Pope in his role as “defender of the faiths”. But look! The cars don’t stop for him and disappear directly – and with the magic of dreams – within the Palace itself. “They have probably not recognised him” says the commenter, astonished. He has been joined by another one. Being this a dream, the new commenter is Alan Hansen. As always, I can’t understand a word of what he says.
“Up to now” – says the BBC champagne-sipping but RP-speaking chap – “no one has seen the Holy Father, ahem, Pope Benedict” and bites his lip. He shouldn’t allow the pump to influence him, but he just can’t help it. “These people truly know what they’re doing”, he thinks. He knows this is the thought in everyone’s mind. “Bastards”, he thinks once again. But he knows he can’t help admiring their chutzpah. “I preferred JP II’s times”, he goes on reflecting. “Very telegenic, great audiences, no one cared a dime for what he said but everyone wanted to see him trembling. I would tell the audience why the Church is all wrong and explain how they can improve; all in a gentle, understanding tone not without symphaty for the less fortunate who believe in God. How I felt terribly superior! It doesn’t work anymore. Ah! Those were the days!”
It being a dream, I am now inside the Palace. The Queen is waiting for the Pope. She sits on a very strange throne made entirely of living Corgis, strangely sitting over each other and combined as to form a throne where she can comfortably sit. The Corgis all smile like the Cheshire Cat, but I know that the Queen doesn’t have any Cheshire Cat so they must all be Welsh Corgis. Suddenly, the Queen showing great energy jumps from her Corgi-throne (loud, but dignified yelping) and kneels at the feet of the Holy Father amidst the hushed expressions of dismay of the diplomatic personnel, saying in an extremely posh voice: “Holy Father, we want to convert to Catholicism. Please free us from this disgraceful sect of atheist madmen”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is present, and feigns indifference. Strangely, he is Vincent Nichols. He wears a rainbow chasuble with a huge “peace” sign at the front. Nichols says to the Pope that the Queen’s opinion does not reflect his own; he informs the Queen that she is a Catholic already, only not Roman, because her accent would clearly betray her as British. “We all speak the same language of God, Peace and Love” – says he stressing the words and counting them with his fingers, as to indicate the Most Holy Trinity – “only in slightly different tongues, Majesty“. He then proceeds to invite both to the homo mass he organises every week in Soho. “Very inclusive”, says he, “and great fun! You should see their “Little Britain” parody during the liturgical dance, Mr. Ratzinger!”.
The Holy Father looks like he would have a good use for a Beretta 92FS (it is a dream, remember!) and it is clear that he has made a mental note. He doesn’t say anything.
And then we are outside again. It is a magnificent Cathedral and I recognise it, it is Canterbury Cathedral. It being a dream, I remember that last year it has been bought back from the Anglicans at a firesale price because the Anglicans need to pay the lawyer’s bill. I smile at the fact that I still haven’t grown used to the fact. But I remember very well that many E & W bishops were strongly opposed, thinking that the purchase offended the Anglican community and was nothing to do with “ecumenism”. They wanted to make of it a Muslim Cultural Centre instead.
I am in the Cathedral now, but again the cameras stay out. Out is also a huge crowd, spreading beyond the little town, vehicular traffic blocked since dawn. Alan Hansen is near me and is now commenting live for the radio but as always with him I can’t understand a word. I don’t care because I am in anyway. The Pope has not been seen by the crowds yet. There is a total refusal to make of him a “popular icon”. But the crowd understands that this is because he is so much more.
I am waiting for the Mass to begin now. Everyone is there. The Queen is there, the Corgis are also there but now they are intricately put together to form a furry pew. Cameron is darkish green in the face, Clegg is yellow. Brown is brown (yes, that brown) and must always be stopped because he continues to say “bigoted woman!” and “it must have been Sue!”. Blair is at the entrance, distributing books no one accepts. He gets an egg in his face instead. Lord Mandelson is near him, wearing a tutu and also trying to give away books with his photo. People look at him in a strange way. No one says a word. Evidently, they are all still afraid of him. And evidently, they are all English.
Vin Nichols has a portable Hindu altar and is planning to worship in front of it, but he is Anglican so my dream doesn’t particularly care for him. All twelve Milliband brothers are present as they are all candidates for the top job over at the party. Unfortunately, their mother has told them she’d vote for the Pope instead, so they are all rather downbeat.
The Pope is at the centre of the attention. Old, but not frail. Gentle, but nobody’s doormat. Subdued in tones, but I hear Cameron thinking (it is a dream, remember) “this is one I don’t want to have against me” and “I must ditch the homos; there’s no choice I am afraid; who cares for the bloody frockers anyway”.
The Holy Father delivers the sharpest, most threatening homily Cameron has ever heard; he informs the PM of the historical existence of Jesus; speaks about abortion, divorce, euthanasia, tolerance for sexual perversions, a country going to the dogs (the corgis all nod here, in a very dignified way). He also touches the issue of the eternal fire and everyone knows he sees Cameron’s soul on the line; but he makes clear that there is still hope. Cameron’s green becomes slightly lighter and he thinks that the worst might be over.
But then the Holy Father starts talking about bees and flowers and everyone understands: he is instructing Cameron on marriage; with goodness and patience, as you would do with a child.
All eyes are on Cameron. He is decidedly pea green now and his roundish face looks a bit like a watermelon. He feels like a Pakistani cricket player caught in the “News of the World”. Brown still looks like his party, with or without the twelve Millibands.
Change of scene again. The Mass has ended. The helicopter shows to the TV audiences the huge masses outside. I know it because it’s a dream. Cameron’s skin is now clearly of a very dark British Racing Green and he is visibly shaken. He trips on Nichols kneeling in front of his Hindu altar and utterly ruins his garland. Nichols is angry. “You bloody queen”, he murmurs to Cameron’s ear, but Mandelson is just there and clearly hears every word. Mandelson makes a mental note. Nichols shivers. Embarrassment all around. Nichols has a brilliant idea and invites him to his homo mass too. “They’ll love your tutu”, says he one instant before realising that this can be construed as a joke rather than honest brown-nosing. Mandelson makes another mental note. Terrified, Nichols turns to the other side where prince Charles sits now clothed in a Tibetan monk outfit (purest silk, you understand) whilst eating delicious orange biscuits “from the farm”, as he puts it. The Holy Father’s convoy is now past them. The Pope sits on a sedia gestatoria, a wonderful Tiara over his head. He goes out in the full light, still on the sedia gestatoria. The immense crowd sees him on the megascreens and goes “ooohhhh” and “aaahhhh”. All cameras are on him. The crowd has stopped rumouring. There is an unreal silence now. The Pope scans them with his kind, but intelligent smile. “Vell, vell, vell”, I hear him think (yes, I do; and yes, in English!), “Ve hef shoved ze Perfidious Albion zet Tsekularism is not ze vay”.
In the silence, a man runs to the Pope. He bows in front of the sedia. A hushed murmur spreads itself among the huge crowd, then becomes a roar of surprise. They have recognised him. Thin, bold, scared, frail, but now hoping. He is Christopher Hitchens. He asks for forgiveness, live on TV, in front of a worldwide audience. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty!”, he says very loud and in tears; then he starts to sob uncontrollably. It tears your heart out. Hansen says something but I don’t understand him. And now the Pope makes one calm, solemn gesture and the sedia is lowered down. The silence is unbearable. He goes near Hitchens, invites him to stand up and looks deep in his eyes. Very deep. The camera nearby takes an extremely close shot of both men’s expression; one is inquisitive, attentive, loving but not to be fooled with; the other is just scared, broken, but you can clearly see that for the first time in his life he dares to ask for hope.
The camera comes still closer, it is perhaps ten seconds but it looks like an eternity. Finally, the Pontiff makes a gesture. It is a blessing. Hitchens cries, the BBC commenters cry, everyone cries, Hansen cries and that even I can understand.
It is a triumph. Everyone kneels down and starts to pray. Rosaries pop out from a thousand pockets, only Nichols continues to stubbornly pray in front of the portable hindu altar and pretends he hasn’t seen anything, his loud OOOOOMMMMMM of defiance lost in the general outroar. The Pope is now led to the Mercedes 600 as the screams become deafening. The long line of cars starts again. The media have instantly spread the news of the conversion everywhere. The crowds on the roadside kneel and pray at the passage of the cars. The helicopters film everything. Seen from above, it is like a hugely long, interminable Ola. I see it from one of the megascreen outside, in the clamour of one thousand Hail Marys.
When everyone has gone away, the cameras take a short shot of one man, alone, sitting there in disbelief. He is Peter Tatchell. No one has noticed his presence.
Then I wake up. I try to fall asleep again and to continue the dream, as I remember I did sometimes as a child. But it is no use. Reality catches up with me with all its harshness.
Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster.