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Being pope is drama

by William Cleary

How explain the colossal funeral gathering for the former pope? Or, looking back, the unusual passion of his winning 26-year career -- amid unprecedented Church tragedy and scandal?  

            I am helped remembering my own years as priest and teacher.

            First, regrets.  One day while speaking from the pulpit at a mandatory school event, I noticed how in about the 8th pew a senior high school boy the class clown had the pews around him laughing as he mumbled ridicule for each thing I said.  Rage blazed out of control in my heart.  The sacred (me!) was being defiled.  The theatrical, the holy, was being desecrated, as if someone from a theater  audience might heckle MacBeth.  Unthinkable.  As that church service ended and the students filed out, the pew ahead of the clown emptied and I swept into it, all righteousness and calm, and surprised him and myself -- with a hard slap to his face.  

It was utterly wrong, an almost unforgivable offense on my part, perhaps a lifelong hurt to the boy's soul.   (Forgive me, Bobby!)  My own soul remains bruised by it to this day too.  But when you are elevated to a pulpit or ordained "priest", or when you are declared "supreme pontiff", you enter another world altogether.  As you do when you play MacBeth, you are no longer your plain self.  

And the people around you act differently to you also.  You become holy to them: something not of the ordinary world.  You are given a "costume", though a priest or a pope is not told it's a costume: he has to figure that out himself.  And few of us actor types are very good at that.  Karol Wojtyla was not good at it, in fact.  Even when too debilitated to function, he would not retire and take off the costume.  I believe he thought he was pope in his deepest being.  "Once a pope, always a pope?"  He may well have thought so.

            The people around Wojtyla?  Most of them thought he was a sacred person too, not just functioning sometimes in that role.  They become part of the theatrics: their role is to honor the pope any way they can.  He even expects it as I did myself in that fateful pulpit long ago. And by the way, I do not remember having regrets for what I did  until years later: but in visiting that church recently after a full 50 years time, my heart groaned deeply as I observed the spot of my unfortunate violence.

            So that's my explanation for the giant papal funeral too: the pope's fans had entered the exciting, imaginative world and played their part.  It was theater where almost anything can happen and be believed. The political people present were another thing: but the plain folk were in a kind of sacred world, an elevated experience they will never forget.

            How explain John Paul II's extraordinarily passionate ministry?   Part of it was surely theater, with the Adrenalin flowing as actors all know it to flow.  The role ceases to be work: it's your vocation and call, your destiny. Often as priest I was heartened by the thought that I was "another Christ". It was a theatrical paradigm that more than satisfied my personal ideals and to let it go and leave the priesthoood was extremely painful and frightening. In fact, in my dream life, I am still inextricably sacerdotal.

Perhaps that's a little of the way Karol Wojtyla felt being pope. Remember: he could be painfully abrupt. Celibacy: don't even talk about it! Women priests: no discussion! Or is it explicable in the light of my own violent reaction to an attack on my sacred space? I think it may be. Such discussions may have felt to him like an attack on the sacred.

It's an easy error to make if you are born for the stage. #

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