John Paul II and the Blessed Business of New Rome

Vatican City.jpg

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Vatican City, Rome, April 2005

Of all the ceremonies staged for the beatification of John Paul II on May 1—the Vatican’s official admission of him into the ranks of the blessed and a crucial step on the path toward sainthood—there may have been none more moving than a Lord’s Prayer sung in Syro-Armenian chant by a Syrian countertenor (Razek François Bitar) in the cavernous Baroque church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. He sang in Aramaic, raising the most ancient of all Christian prayers in the same language that Jesus spoke. His ancestors could have been singing the same prayer nearly two thousand years ago, as could the first Christians in Rome, transplanted from Judaea. There were other sublime moments in that same afternoon concert, a few hours before the Saturday night vigil that opened the official process of beatification: Palestrina’s searing Stabat Mater, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus, as opulent as its gilded setting in Saint Peter’s. But nothing could surpass the beauty of a single reverent voice.

The rest of the past weekend in Rome was pure spectacle. (And even if the Vatican was unable to rival the remarkable news from Washington and Islamabad that largely superseded the ceremony in the US media Sunday night, there was consolation to be found in the suspicion that, as one Roman acquaintance proclaimed, albeit implausibly to the rest of us, that the death of Osama Bin Laden must be another of John Paul’s posthumous miracles.) Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, set the tone:

Whoever isn’t interested in the beatification [of Pope John Paul II], and I hope that means only a few people, is probably better off spending a day in the country, because the city will certainly be under a lot of pressure.

With these words, Alemanno seemed to confirm a conviction that Rome is not only Catholic, but Catholic in a particular way: the Catholicism of mass movements and popular piety—in short, the Catholicism that John Paul’s twenty-seven-year papacy was able to reinforce without the usual back-and-forth that occurs in a system that has been headed, under normal circumstances, by very old men who don’t last long in office.

Nature imposes her own limits on most papal mandates, but Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, elected as a 58-year-old in burgeoning health, never looked much like a candidate for early retirement. If he had died after a reign of, say, seven to ten years, then his successor would most probably have been a cardinal of radically different convictions, like the thoughtful Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini, who remains closely allied to the forces that moved the liberalizing Second Vatican Council and who would have been Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s most potent adversary in the last conclave that elected him Pope Benedict XVI. But in the meantime Martini had fallen victim to Parkinson’s disease, and there was never really any doubt that John Paul’s line would be continued by his successor. An extremely long papacy allows a single faction within the Vatican to appoint so many allied bishops, cardinals, abbots, and priests that the whole character of the institution can change; the representatives of other viewpoints and other factions grow old or die off. Thanks to John Paul’s longevity in office—and the political astuteness of Benedict XVI—the present-day Church is a very different institution from the Church that elected Karol Wojtyla pope.

As for Mayor Alemanno’s remarks, they seem to overlook the fact that Rome is also home to the oldest Jewish community in Europe, to Muslims and Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists, atheists and agnostics—not to mention Catholics who may see God, like the prophet Ezekiel, in a still, small voice rather than in the crush of the hundred thousand bodies who turned out for the Sunday’s ceremony. Like his unfortunate predecessor, Walter Veltroni, this mayor has tasted how it feels to preside, in the footsteps of the ancient emperors, over Rome’s bread and circuses. Tellingly, Veltroni’s moment of greatest exaltation happened to be a political rally in the Circus Maximus in 2008 (for his newly formed Democratic Party)—but that rally also marked the precise moment when Rome began to turn against him; his ambition to be prime minister took over, and he forgot his duties. Now, as Alemanno is discovering in this city of endlessly recurring stories, the whole tale is happening again: just as he is beginning to set his sights on higher office, the perfidious masses are getting restive about him.

Alemanno probably meant to say, but didn’t, that Romans were as welcome at the Vatican’s May Day party as the masses of Poles and “papa-boys” (Catholic youth with backpacks and baseball caps) whose numbers reached a million. Instead, for all his usual prudence, this former neo-Fascist mayor sometimes still ends up sounding fascistic; the alliance between Vatican and Italian state goes right back to Mussolini.


Do Romans really feel the way Alemanno thinks they should about fasttracking John Paul II for sainthood? Roman merchants, at least, are keeping all their bases covered. Newsstands offer 2012 calendars with “Saint Giovanni Paolo II,” John Paul biographies, John Paul key chains, John Paul refrigerator magnets—but also the latest issue of MicroMega magazine, whose title, “The Great Obscurantist,” gives away its critical stance toward Karol Woytyla. Focus History, the Italian equivalent of Discover magazine, has dedicated the April issue to Heretics; for only 10 euros and 90 euro-cents, the publishers have been offering a 300-page book: the biography of the most challenging heretic of them all, Giordano Bruno, burned at the Inquisition’s stake here in Rome in 1600. John Paul specifically refused to consider pardoning Bruno for the Jubilee of 2000, though he had pardoned Galileo in the previous Jubilee Year, 1983. The English-language bookseller in Trastevere, my neighborhood in Rome, has six books on John Paul in its window, but they, too, were carefully arranged alongside a book on Giordano Bruno.

It was, after all, John Paul himself who discovered how lucrative the mass encouragement of sainthood can be, both for the city and for the Church. Over his two-and-a-half-decade papacy, he beatified 1,340 people and canonized 483—more than his predecessors had done in four centuries, attracting millions of Catholic pilgrims to the Vatican in the process. His Vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, supervised the creation of a bus tour called “Christian Rome” modeled on the city-run Archeobus, which led from the Forum down the Appian Way; now the yellow open-top buses of Roma Cristiana are a huge business and the Archeobus, after an auspicious beginning a decade ago, has fallen victim to the usual Roman decline and fall: half the destinations painted on the side of the Archeobus are now crossed out with a Magic Marker and the word NO; the staff, when not being insufferably snotty, seem to be in the business of avoiding work altogether (they may be part of the hiring scandals that have just emerged in several city offices, notably including public transport). Mayor Alemanno clearly has other concerns than the Archeobus on his hands.

The way Rome’s residents actually feel about the late pope depends on their own experience. For Eastern Europeans, he symbolizes the great change in their own lives. Romanians now make up the largest foreign community in Italy, having exchanged the Soviet bloc for the European Union. Their ranks in Italy include a large population of Romas, many of whom, desperately poor, live in makeshift shanty towns underneath viaducts, amid the rushes in the flood plain of the Tiber, in the bushes of the city’s parks. Mayor Alemanno has been bulldozing these shantytowns as a way of discouraging both settlers and settlements, leading a group of them to occupy Saint Paul’s Basilica during Easter week until they were handed over to Caritas, the Catholic charity (his predecessor’s solution, shipping several hundred Romas off to camps in the countryside, was hardly better).

Many of these economic refugees beg or salvage copper for a living; some steal. Many are street musicians. One of their number, a man who plays his accordion in my neighborhood, has been sending his daughter to medical school in Bucharest on his earnings—in the terrible old days of the Ceaucescu dictatorship, a Roma girl could never have attended university at all. For these people, John Paul is a powerful symbol. Italians and native Romans, many of whom saw the late pope in person, run the gamut from faithful Catholics to rabid anticlericalists; opinions show the same range among most of the foreign communities in Rome outside the former Eastern bloc.

But in fact, what any of us feel about John Paul is not necessarily the crucial issue: it’s what we feel about crowd scenes, from the prayer vigil in the Circus Maximus, to the morning beatification ceremony in the Vatican, to the afternoon’s city-sponsored May Day concert in front of the cathedral of Saint John Lateran, an old Communist-inspired event that has lost its political connotations. Almost. There is one crucial holdover: the people are still assumed to be synonymous with the masses. Every year the residents of the Lateran neighborhood that is blasted for hours with overloud music and inundated with trash, drink, and bodies try to convince the city government that people are individuals, not mobs, and some would simply like to spend May Day relaxing at home. But the mayor of Rome looks out on the Forum and the full expanse of history, and his thoughts often turn, considering that heady panorama, to his prospects for national office. At least he prepared the city for its moment of May Day glory by painting over its obnoxiously ubiquitous graffiti—doing a much more serious job of it than his predecessor, who used low-grade paint that has already flaked away, and made no particular effort to match the original colors of buildings.


The pilgrims, in the end, will leave a much more benign footprint than the so-called “movida,” the hordes of aimless youth who plague Roman nights from Trastevere to San Lorenzo, drinking, doing drugs, brawling, breaking everything in sight. The graffiti will be back all too soon. And with them, Mayor Alemanno will be presented again with the real, intractable problems that abruptly turned his predecessor from “Rome’s popular mayor” to “patetico.” And from the whole weekend of pageantry I will come away chiefly with the memory of one ethereal voice raised, with utter simplicity, in a song of the ages.

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