A papal message and the meaning

Susan Riley September 24 1984

A papal message and the meaning

Susan Riley September 24 1984

A papal message and the meaning


Susan Riley

It happened during a youth rally for Pope John PaulIIin Montreal's vast Olympic Stadium during the early stages of the first papal visit to Canada. A narrator re ferred to a Gospel description of the prophet John the Baptist as a man whose existence was necessary to pre pare the world for the birth of Christ, so that "all men through him might be lieve." For some Roman Catholics, caught up in the frenzy aroused by the Pope last week, it required only imagi nation to apply the same message to John Paul's mission in Canada. And in the days following his Montreal appear ance, the Pope clearly touched the thou sands of believers who thronged to see and hear him across the country. For hundreds of thousands of others, look ing on from outside the church, too, there was enlightenment, if only in the discovery that his message and meaning were broader and deeper than they had been led to expect.

The prophecies of John Paul’s Canadian visit had all seemed to foreshadow an explosive mixture: a staunchly conservative pope visiting one of his most liberal flocks in a secular country. The fear of violence became palpable after a fatal bomb explosion in Montreal just before the visit. Security would be obtrusive, traffic impossible, the material expense extravagant. It was said that the papal presence was bound to rekindle conflict over John Paul’s severe view of permissiveness in public, private and priestly lives, and over his approach to feminist assertiveness.

Oppressive: But as the mission proceeded much of the early foreboding lifted quickly, and talk of trouble subsided. For many, the Pope’s visit to Canada has been a thorough surprise—not only because of its aura of theatre, but for its up-close discovery of the personable Pope himself. There were, as well, the supporting scenes of popular enthusiasm. In Montreal screaming teenagers welcomed the enemy of premarital sex, drug and alcohol abuse like a rock star. At outdoor masses the reception was warm and, with attendance lower than expected, traffic troubles less daunting and security problems apparently less

oppressive than predicted. As well, the style and content of John Paul’s addresses tended to disarm critics and force the indifferent to take notice.

The achievement showed the Pope to be as politically deft as he is doctrinally conservative. In the past, in other countries, his words have been uncompromising: he opposes divorce, premarital sex, birth control and the ordination of women. In Canada, carefully coached by the liberal-minded Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Pope has managed to speak with forceful circumspection. His strictures are softened by humanist concerns. His homilies are tailored to his audience.

In Newfoundland, where the divorce rate is less than half the Canadian average of 40 per cent, he extolled the traditional family and referred only obliquely to his passionate opposition to artificial birth control. (A week before he arrived he told a crowd in St. Peter’s Square that even natural birth control methods could be abused.)

‘Shock’: In small-town Quebec and among Polish Canadians, where the Virgin Mary remains an object of worship or of religious patriotism, he praised her. But in cities where the worship of Mary is largely considered an outdated practice, or even an affront to some feminists and an impediment to Catholic-Protestant communion, he was silent on the issue. In Montreal he beatified the founder of an order of nuns dedicated to tending house for priests but he avoided suggesting her as a model of servitude. Christian feminists bristled at what they regarded as the sexist language of some of his speeches, but privately expressed relief that the words were not stronger. Said Marcelle Dolment, of the Quebec-based Committee for Action and Information on Women: “The Pope has said nothing to shock women because he has said nothing at all.”

John Paul’s deliberate ambiguity is precisely the posture that the Canadian bishops wanted him to take, at least on the touchy issues of women and sexual morality. Conscious of the fact that their congregations routinely ignore Rome’s ban on divorce and birth control, the bishops do not want to risk further alienation. Said Rev. Everett MacNeil,

director of the Catholic Health Association, who is travelling with the papal press: “We wouldn’t like to see him get more specific.” MacNeil added that the Pope displayed sensitivity to local conditions—and respect for the intuition of his Canadian bishops.

But other observers questioned the integrity of the Pope’s message, which seemed to vary in different places. In his recent book, Heaven and Hell, Toronto religion writer Tom Harpur declared, “No other person in the world is allowed to make so many speeches on so many issues, with such extraordinary media

coverage, without ever having to face a press conference or any forum for opposing views.”

Emotional: Because the Pope’s remarks are often vague, they are subjected to virtually endless interpretation, particularly in television commentaries. But his style is also earnest and concerned. Television viewers may sometimes be baffled by his messages, but thousands are also touched by his apparent warmth.

He sings in a tuneful baritone, as he did in leading an emotional gathering of Polish Canadians in Toronto with a tra-

ditional evensong hymn. The former actor clearly possesses a skilful politician’s gift for working a crowd from a podium or in close quarters. But few who meet the Pope in person doubt his sincerity. He moves with ease among people, smiles his flattering smile and tries, in halting English, to make jokes. When it rained on the papal procession for the third day in a row, he told the people of St. John’s, “I have brought the rain.” He evokes an intensely emotional response among many of the people he meets. Said 32-year-old Susan Lidster of Cupids, Nfld., a victim of multiple sclerosis

who was blessed by the Pope: “I wanted to sit down and cry. I found it a humbling experience.” For many former Catholics, watching the Pope and hearing the familiar language of the mass revived warmemdash;and troublingemdash;memories. In Quebec, once the most Catholic of provinces and now the most secular, the reaction to the Pope was especially complex. According to Sister Gilberte Baril, a theologian at Laval University, Quebecers feel “a real desire to be in communion with the Pope and yet a certain reserve. I am not sure what lies behind that reserve, but in it lies the future of the church in Quebec.”

Punks: Still, there was no such reserve at many of the larger gatherings, and at times the Pope watched displays of adulation with apparent misgiving. In Montreal especially, he gestured to the wildly cheering crowd for calm, but he had little effect. The punks, the black-jacketed youths and the preppie young West Montrealers were so excited that they cheered the Gospel and the Pope’s admonition against drug and alcohol abuse in unison.

It is difficult to predict whether the fervor aroused by the Pope will lead to a significant religious revival. As Harpur wrote: “The point is that Catholics are increasingly ignoring John Paul’s authority while continuing to applaud his pop-star image.” For her part, Sophie Chaurette, 17, a volunteer at the Montreal youth rally, said that

many young people simply turn a blind eye to those features of their religion that they find unpalatable. She added: “I’m here because I believe in God, and the ^Pope is the representative of “God. I am a little uneasy about what he says about women but I still love him.”

More than any other contemporary leader, contended Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé in welcoming John Paul to Canada, the Pope has successfully “identified the causes of our universal anxiety.” She added: “The world is in disarray. Children seek fathers, and adults leaders. Perhaps what is lacking is the audacity of the prophet.” For some Canadians, the Pope is that prophet. For many others, he is the subject of curiosity. He will not leave behind a how-to guide to modern life. But he has raised questions that have not been asked so publicly, and so personably, for a very long;£?