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 a preview of the culture mainly set in place by John Paul II, of the travelling papal circus going from country to country, doing big things at big services in a thoroughly big way. Not surprisingly, Cardinal Pacelli 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. Occasionally, I was even reminded of Herr Hitler and the cult he fostered ... Pacelli and Hitler have in common a legacy of embarrassing studio photographs showing the Great Man trying out 'to camera' some rhetorical gestures.
I am far from sure that I agree with that sort of thing. On the one hand, the role of Peter is to strengthen his brethren, and I would have to concede that a papal visit can be very strengthening to a besieged and insecure local Church. But the whole business does rather suggest that a pope is a sort of superbishop, which he isn't. He is the Bishop of that Church with which all Christians are supposed to be in communion; of the Church where Peter's voice lives and speaks - so that under the prescribed conditions 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 also the local norm. In a healthy Particular Church, surely the local Successor of the Apostles, the Diocesan Bishop, should be capable, in normal circumstances, of fulfilling the munus apostolicum without needing the Head Master to come into his classroom and restore order?
The endless and vulgar showcasing of Papa Bergoglio demonstrates how inherently dangerous this cult of personality really is. Turning the Servus servorum Dei into a cosmopolitan celeb obscures, rather than expresses, his true place in the Church Militant. Even Pio Nono did not consider that his Primacy (which he was indeed so anxious to get defined) required him to gad around the world showing it off like a girl with an engagement ring. And, before anybody draws my attention to the 'pompous' 'Renaissance' rituals of the pre-John Paul I Papacy, I will suggest to you that a pope lurching around on an old-style sedia and with a weighty triregnum* to keep safely balanced on his head was not in a position to posture and gesture and flirt with the mob, or to dish out ill-considered one-liners to a hungry Press. But the modern papal cult, for all its 'immediacy' and 'humility', is a much more domineering phenomenon than all those harmless bits of baroque fun. And, in the hands of a pope who does not know his theology (Fr Zed neatly demonstrated two or three weeks ago that the Holy Father had apparently not understood the Address that he himself read last January to the Roman Rota), and who has a supreme over-confidence in the value of his own misguided and often inane off-the-cuff remarks, the whole, entire, present-day officially promoted papal personality cult is a very dangerous and profoundly unedifying tool.
Next time, we could do with a much quieter and less visible and more considered papacy. A pontificate along the lines of the Petrine Ministry as it was so admirably defined in the careful and balanced words of Vatican I.
Come back, the Prisoner of the Vatican!
* A truly edifying and really humble pontiff might resume the use of the papier-mache tiara made for the Coronation of Pius VII after the Conclave held in Venice while Rome was occupied by French revolutionary armies. It was light-weight, and is said last to have been worn by B Pius IX.