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Rome Diary: A New Papal Style?

by Desmond O'Grady

If he keeps to his program, Benedict XVI's first trip outside Rome will mark a significant break from John Paul II's style.

When John Paul II went to the previous national eucharistic congress in Bologna in September 1997, on the first day he attended a concert in his honour given by performers such as Bob Dylan and the Italians Lucio Dalla, Adrian Celentano and Gianni Morandi. In fact, the attempt to link up with pop stars had its embarrassing moments.

As well as celebrating the final Mass, John Paul spent time on the afternoon of his second day greeting the crowds who had turned out in the streets of Bologna.

Benedict XVI seems to want to step back from spectacularising religious events and concentrate solely on their sacramental character. Reportedly he wanted to move some of the post-election ceremonies from St. Peter's Square into the basilica on the grounds that its architecture would help bring out their meaning. He was dissuaded from doing so.

He has not made a trip to Assisi, as John Paul did soon after his election, paying tribute as bishop of Rome to St. Francis the patron of Italy.

Apart from Bari, the only trip scheduled is that to Cologne in August for World Youth Day. It is known that has been invited to Poland by Cardinal Glemp, to the United States by Cardinal Mc Carrick and to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Doubtless he has received many other invitations.

If he accepts some of these invitations, despite reports that he does not like flying because of a tendency to dizziness, he will be under pressure to communicate with crowds outside liturgical occasions. He has managed this well in Rome so far, even if he is not a born actor like John Paul II.

He seems diffident of television which John Paul II handled in masterly fashion. A diffidence would be understandable because television can dump people just as easily as it can exalt them.

Was it a grace or luck which saved John Paul II being dumped by it? His trust in television was exceptional: he arranged that it take him even in his intimate moments of prayer and meditation. A lot of this film has not yet been seen but it will be a source for historians. Many claim he was a mystic; if so, he was the first wired mystic.

He rode close to the edge without tumbling over. Once his secretary rang on his behalf to speak live on an Italian prime time television talk show. That is flirting with a situation in which a television presenter can do more damage than an assassin's bullet.

Even his televised agony had its perils but did not go on too long. His death was like the end to a perfectly timed tour de force; it was as if he had received a response to what seemed to me his challenge to God to use him as a sign that people might believe.

On televised occasions he knew how to move crowds but also to move with crowds. The fluidity was a perfect complement to the fixity of his written documents and his disciplinary rigor.

Will Benedict attempt a similar synthesis?

John Paul did not so much centralise the papacy, as commentators keep parroting, but personalised it.

Vatican policy has long been to concentrate the spotlight on the pope but this acquired a new level both because of John Paul's personality and his mastery of the media. He was able to give new pregnancy to the term universal pastor.

Some bishops felt he had robbed them of their influence. But some Roman curialists felt the same way.

Where had the influence gone? It lay with him.

He saw his trips as creating new links between Rome and local churches.

He upset some Roman curialists by making major statements far away, for instance on war in Hiroshima or on slavery in Africa.

He also upset them by beatifying people where they had lived. (Incidentally another announced change under Benedict is that the pope will only perform canonisation ceremonies, not those of beatification, except perhaps in the eventual case of Blessed John Paul II).

In other words, in various ways, John Paul decentralised.

He did so in his own spectacular fashion, filling screens and stadiums.

If a pope no longer fills television screens, will Catholicism dwindle?

Benedict does not seem to think so. If he is less present and less spectacular, will Catholics feel Rome is less intrusive?

Desmond O'Grady is an Australian author and journalist resident in Rome. His latest book is a biography of Raffaello Carboni of Eureka Stockade: Stages of the Revolution (HardieGrant 2004).

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