Toronto recently hosted a visit from Pope John Paul II, along with several hundred thousand youthful believers, most, but not all, Roman Catholic. The event, held every few years in different parts of the world, is called World Youth Day. The Toronto WYD went on for five full days, with the Pope helicoptering in for appearances every 36 hours or so, between which the pilgrims shopped, genuflected for one another, and held sing-songs.
For the privilege of hosting World Youth Day, each Toronto taxpaying household has been charged slightly less than $5 per thousand on their annual property tax bill, which means that the wealthy Anglicans residents of Rosedale paid more than the mainly Roman Catholic Italians and Portuguese around my neighbourhood. That’s the good news, along with the fact that this vast angelic event precipitated less crime than the weekly drink-down and punch-up at a Hell’s Angels clubhouse. One hopes that the bright-eyed pilgrims were also obeying the Pope’s proscriptions against logical human sexual behavior and not necking in the grass like normal kids would if their parents allowed them to sleep out in the park co-ed, and thus won’t result in a flood of unwanted immaculate conceptions about nine months from now.
Despite all the blissful, heart-warming wonderfulness of WYD, the event left me feeling distinctly icky. Part of this is my own long-lapsed faith in Christianity, which lapsed before I was ten years old when the still-fresh stories about World War II begin to sink in and I saw that Christian virtues—the local Anglican kind, anyway—had more to do with out-of-key singing and social conformity than with spiritual obligation or making the world a better place for those less fortunate than we were.
Today the sight of the faithful wandering around in that classic pose of Christian surrender—arms bent at the elbow, hands at shoulder height with palms upraised, makes me uneasy because it so utterly reflects the degree of rigor Christian beatitude requires in the wealthy West: minimum physical and emotional effort coupled with an empty head. I can never quite suppress the instinct that it is nothing more than a posture assumed only when there’s an audience, hopefully one that contains a few television cameras. Call me cynical, but I think it translates most accurately as "I don’t give a damn about anything but my own bliss and purity."
Then there’s the Pope. I’ve never liked him. Yes, I recognize both his sincerity and the depth of his commitment—and I’ve come to admire, helplessly, the skill and concentration of his relentlessly self-aggrandizing showmanship. Before he contracted Parkinson’s Disease I referred to him as "that dreadful playwright"—in honour of the dreadful plays he once wrote and performed in. Now I call him "that poor, dreadful playwright," and leave it up to anyone listening to the rants that follow to interpret what I mean by "poor".
He has been a piss-poor pope, once you get beyond his gifts for drawing attention to himself. His antediluvian policies on birth and population control, which make it a mortal sin for the faithful to stop having children they’re too poor to feed or educate, have helped to perpetuate the cycle of social squalor, environmental destruction and physical starvation most of the world is mired in. In that sense, he’s contributed to far more human suffering than have the antics of his fundamentalist colleagues in the Islamic world, who really just want the West to leave them alone so they can cut off people’s hands and have women stoned to death whenever they resist the expressive repression that religion’s currently ascendant fundamentalists mistake for sacred law.
The Pope’s policies have made him the indirect architect of the global AIDS crisis, and not just by confusing the self-preservation instincts of the poor and the senselessly obedient. He’s also given innumerable lazy and corrupt governments the rationale for doing nothing about AIDS, and he’s provided an excuse to the corporations to tell dying people to fuck off. He has made himself the most powerful single arbiter in the world on a subject—human carnality and reproduction—over which he is without either experience or insight. Had he been a socially and politically relevant pope, he’d used the occasion of World Youth Day to proclaim unnecessary ignorance the eleventh deadly sin. But then, he should have done this twenty years ago.
But the Pope is who he is, and thus World Youth Day, which should have been about the young people who attended the event, became almost wholly about the Pope: his infirmity, and his courage in the face of that and his impending demise. The closest he came to airing out a real issue during the event was a single sentence apology for the horde of sexual predators among his priests and bishops—an apology he took back a couple of sentences later by backslapping the virtuous clergy that have resisted temptation. No mention of the fact that the structure and proscriptions of ordination continue to put priests in temptation’s way, or that the application of a little common sense that most of the rest of Christianity has been applying since the 16th Century would end most of the abuse. Instead, we got stunt after stunt that focused solely on the Pope’s showmanship, beginning with the television mini-drama of him walking off the plane unaided, and embarking at the end the same way. Between, he conducted an entire mass with his head cocked awkwardly to the side, organized a foot-washing jamboree amongst the CEO clergyman attending the event, and told the pilgrims he loved each and every one of them personally. He even brought a group of picturesquely representative youngsters up to his island retreat and listened to them attentively—and on camera—as they told him how much they loved and admired him. He’s a tough, self-aggrandizing old coot. So what?
The few individuals and groups who tried to mar all this bliss by attempting to introduce real-world issues and concerns were studiously ignored by everyone but the police, who did as decent a job of shooing them away as they had most of the homeless before the festivities began. A few merchants complained about how few tourist dollars the pilgrims were spending, and a shop-owner next door to the site of the 800,000-soul mass held at the end of the Day whined loudly when pilgrim poop overwhelmed facilities after the mass and the all night camp-out that preceded it, damaging a few thousand dollars worth of his merchandise. But by then the Pope had flown off in his plane for his next show of physical prowess in Guatemala, which is a country with considerably greater need for spiritual counseling on the need for human good-will and peacefulness—and birth control—than Canada.
It all left me hoping that this really is a farewell tour the Pope is making, and that once he’s gone, whoever succeeds the poor, dreadful playwright has some ideas that are lodged in the 21st Century, where the really crucial issues are precisely the ones this pope has so utterly fumbled: population and disease control. That’s a hope, but I don’t have much more faith that it will happen than I’ve had in Christianity’s ability to respond to a complex world with more than pious cliches, the worst singing heard on the planet outside of a Native American sweat-lodge, and vast television-friendly events where nothing useful happens.
1225 w/ August 6th, 2002