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 S 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 all that sort of thing. If we are to use our 'modern' technology to whizz images around the world, the sort of things we need to show and be shown must include the lovely clip, reproduced on Eponymous Flower, of Papa Ratzinger silently and most humbly kneeling before his Eucharistic Lord while the Divine Praises are chanted.
Foreign visits? 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 (and in such circumstances would be even more powerful if it were rarer). But the whole present-day business does rather suggest to me 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 specified conditions he articulates the Infallibility of the whole Church and has a Primacy, when and where it is needed, of ensuring that the universal 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 munera apostolica 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, as that role has been handed down and was taught authoritatively by Vatican I. Even Pio Nono did not consider that his Primacy (which he was indeed anxious to have defined) required him to gad around the world showing it off like a girl with a new 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 precariously 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 phony 'immediacy' and showy 'spontaneity' and theatrical 'humility', is a much more domineering phenomenon than all those harmlessly quaint bits of baroque fun. And, in the hands of a pope who does not care about doctrine, and who has a supreme over-confidence in the value of his own misguided and often inane off-the-cuff remarks, the 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; as it was publicly demonstrated in the quiet and gentle Petrine Ministry of Pope Benedict. Perhaps we may even now pray for that man who, in God's omniscient foreknowledge, will be the next Roman Pontiff?
Unless, of course, we are truly living in the Last Days.
* A truly edifyingly 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.