Monday, September 17, 2012

On attending the Pope's Mass

Pope Benedict XVI wields a stick (Alex Rowell)
I’ll say this much for Joseph Ratzinger: no one could accuse him of over-emotive speechmaking. With his barely-audible lethargic croak, rising infrequently and with great strain to a mumble, there is little danger of him whipping a crowd into a frenzy of bloodlust or vengeance. He would, indeed, be incapable of holding an audience of any kind were it not for his claim to be the quasi-divine “vicar” of Christ on earth, with the “infallibility”, “supreme authority” and other special powers that that heady title entails.

Having reached the waterfront venue in central Beirut a full hour before the Popemobile arrived, and having outlasted many a devout Catholic and hardened journalist in staying till the very end under the roasting sun, I think I can fairly claim to have given my first Mass my best shot. Much as when I visited Jerusalem, I went into the experience with an open mind; willing to be taken wherever my emotions moved me. Ignore, to the extent possible, the unspeakable crimes in which the man is complicit, I told myself. Perhaps seeing him live in the flesh, I speculated, would induce some stirring within me, however slight, of the awe, or contentment, or agape, or whatever exactly it is that the faithful get out of these things. Even Larkin admitted to an “awkward reverence”, after all.

And yet, here as in the Old City, precisely the opposite turned out to be the case. Once again it squarely struck me that personal exposure to “holiness” only confirms its essential banality. Just as the Western Wall is really just a wall, and the Stone of the Anointing is really just a stone, so a mediocre man in a hat and costume is really just a mediocre man. Non-Catholics already know this, of course, but as the minutes became hours and the postures succumbed to gravity, I wondered how many of “the flock” were privately beginning to suspect it too. Indeed, when the chairs began to empty by the hundreds while the Baba was still on the mic, I might have even felt a twinge of pity for the geriatric if I didn’t remember what infamous villainy he was capable of.

Not that I intend to go into any of that now, nauseating as it was to see a quarter of a million people cheering a paedophile-enabler (in case you’re interested, the authoritative account of Ratzinger’s widely-underestimated role in these crimes against humanity is human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC’s ‘The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse’). My point, as I was saying – which is one I’ve known since childhood, just as every child in the crowd yesterday knew, as did most of the adults if they only had the honesty to admit it to themselves – is that religion is desperately, unrescuably dull.

It might seem like a frivolous criticism, but it’s enough by itself to discredit the whole enterprise. Take humour alone, or rather the lack thereof. As the philosopher Alfred Whitehead pointed out, “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature”. How can a book without laughter – that famously most efficacious of medicines; “the sunshine”, as Hugo put it, “that chases winter from the human face” – claim to give comfort to troubled souls, let alone pave the way to eternal bliss?  

Or, in the present case, how can God’s own incarnation fail to keep common mortals listening for a mere two hours? How could he be anything less than brilliantly, incomparably captivating? One might have expected the creator of the Universe to be a bit of a personality. (One might also have expected him to be a bit kinder with the weather – I counted no fewer than four limp bodies carried away on stretchers.)

In short, if yesterday were any indication of what the party’s like up in heaven, it underscored once again why most atheists are happy enough to be excluded. 

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