20 November 2010

Flying prelates

In an idle moment, I browsed through some grainy old black-and-white video clips of the life of Pius XII. I had not realised how much he travelled in the 1930s, when he was Secretary of State. It all looked uncannily like the culture mainly set in place by John Paul II, of the travelling papal circus going from country to country, doing big things (Eucharistic congresses ...) at big services in a thoroughly big way. Not surprisingly, he was called the cardinale volante (remember that air travel was by no means as every-day at that time), and described as a sort of vice-papa.

I am slightly torn as whether I agree with that sort of thing. On the one hand, the role of Peter is to strengthen his brethren, and a visit can be very strengthening. On the other hand, it does rather suggest that a pope is a sort of superbishop, which he isn't. He is simply the Bishop of that Church with which all Christians are supposed to be in communion; of the Church where Peter's voice speaks - so that he articulates the Infallibility of the whole Church and has a Primacy, when and where it is needed, of ensuring that the norma fidei is everywhere the norm. In a healthy Particular Church, surely the local Successor of the Apostles should be capable of fulfilling the munus apostolicum? But perhaps the current ruptures and disorders do call for a papa volante. Perhaps the global village does require, in the modern pope, an instant global pastor such as most other Christian generations, before the technologies of instant travel and instant communication, did not need. Anglican Catholics have certainly often felt the advantage of a Papacy which can protect the persecuted Christian from bully-boys closer home.

My goodness me, papal events in the days of Pius XII had a style and a grandeur. But, beneath the grandeur, I was struck by how vulnerable the Pontiff was, perched on the Gestatorial Chair. Not only could he surely have been assassinated with ease; even an attack upon those carrying him could have sent him crashing praecipitem to the ground. Indeed, as I watched, my heart was several times in my mouth as the chair careered up and down steps and hurtled round corners. I found that combination of pomp and vulnerability rather touching and Christ-like. On Palm Sunday, the Lord felt no need for bullet-proof glass, although the palm branches of Victory proclaimed him the superior of any Imperator, and the donkey proclaimed him the Messiah.

In the thread, Joshua has provided a most apposite poem from dear Oscar's Rosa Mystica. An undervalued collection of beautiful verse.

2 comments:

Joshua said...

To think that the literally great John XXIII (were those numerals his weight in stone?) was carried down stairs on the sedia! It's a wonder he survived the procession to his coronation: just thinking about it I have sick-making visions of the horde of accompanying dignitaries and flunkeys being thrown down like ninepins as the gentlemen of His Holiness stagger under, then loose hold of, their enormous burthen, which then proceeds, Pope and vestments and sedia and all, to fly down the scala regia at gathering speed...

Joshua said...

From Wilde's Rosa Mystica:

A pilgrim from the northern seas
What joy for me to seek alone
The wondrous Temple, and the throne
Of Him who holds the awful keys!

When, bright with purple and with gold,
Come priest and holy Cardinal,
And borne above the heads of all
The gentle Shepherd of the Fold.

O joy to see before I die
The only God-anointed King,
And hear the silver trumpets ring
A triumph as He passes by.

Or at the altar of the shrine
Holds high the mystic sacrifice,
And shows a God to human eyes
Beneath the veil of bread and wine.

— Rome Unvisited, III.