The Pope's Funeral CBC TV April 8/05
Here's my policy regarding tv. With the exception of certain rare cultural programs, I watch only the following things:
election nights, Academy Awards and really good funerals, such as Princess Diana's, The Queen Mother's and Pierre Trudeau's.
You'll notice that they're all live events. The appeal is that you never know what'll happen.
At first, I thought the pope's obsequies wouldn't rate my consideration. My feelings about him in his role as "Vicar of
Christ" are largely negative (although I gather that, as a man, he would make a fascinating character study). So we're not
talking about any great sorrow or affection here. Nor would I watch the ceremony for the ritual. Pompous liturgies mostly
bore the hell out of me. (They're meant to, you say?) In this case, one might hope for some good singing but not enough to
get me up at four in the morning.
What did make me consider it was the prospect of an unprecedented public event. How would those faceless bureaucrats
at the Vatican perform come show time with the world watching? All those heads of state in one place! I wanted to
see how the logistical and the security problems were handled, not to mention the political implications. Besides, a pope's
funeral is kind of like a solar eclipse: you don't get to see one very often, at least, not when you elect stubborn old hangers-on
like this one.
Going to bed Thursday night I heard the welcome news that CBC would re-broadcast the funeral at 9 am, so it seemed prudent
to wait for that. But then the call of nature wakened me at 4:30. Knowing that I'd be lying awake for a while longer, I decided
to trudge downstairs and catch some of the ceremony as it was happening. (Later I caught the first part on the 9 am re-broadcast.)
I arrived at the tv just in time to catch that splendid blonde deacon (John McDonald) intoning the gospel. I wonder what his
future in the church holds in store for him?
First impression: a Martian watching this ceremony could be forgiven for asking, "How do these creatures reproduce? There
are only about two females for every hundred males!"
On the whole, I would rate the ceremony as decorously dull. Rather like this year's Academy Awards in that respect, except
that in this case all the commercials were plugging the same thing. Nothing untoward happened. In this, the Vatican officials
succeeded probably beyond their fondest expectations. No snipers, no heart attacks, no cardinals on cell phones. You
had to search for the tiniest imperfections, such as one sneaky choir member snapping a photo. And the wind blew the
book of gospels closed on the coffin. One lady seemed to lose her balance when presenting her gift at the offertory, and Cardinal
Ratzinger, the celebrant, had to help her up. Apart from that, God herself couldn't have asked for a more flawless performance.
There was, in fact, a kind of austere beauty to the picture. I kept thinking of all that scarlet scattered among those
soaring columns in terms of an abstract painting.
Eventually we did see some of the Polish nuns who staffed the pope's household. If you want to know what I have against
him, look no further than these women with whom he surrounded himself. They garb themselves in ridiculous trappings that hide
their womanhood as much as possible and they dedicate themselves to lives of servitude towards male patriarchs who are only
too happy to keep them in that submissive role. He even had the gall to parade one of them on his last trip to Canada. What
an insult to all Canadian women to imply that such a person is the model of what women should be.
We were told that there were several kings and queens in the conglomeration of VIPs. They should have had nametags. All
clumped together, they looked like just a bunch of puffy-faced people. Since the Vatican was giving us the video feed, we
didn't get to see any Canadians dignitaries. Apparently they weren't considered important enough. There was a glimpse of Prince
Charles looking not too frustrated by the postponement of his wedding by one day. It was amusing to see George W.
Bush placed not in the front row of a group. I thought it very campy of Condoleeza Rice to dredge up the old idea of the black
lace mantilla, which hasn't been de rigeur at papal audiences for about 40 years now. Maybe she hoped to re-capture
Jacquie's elan on her meeting visit with Pope John XXIII. Nice try.
I don't know who was doing the English translations on CBC but he handled the job very well: understated and accurate.
Father Thomas Rosica's sanctimonious and self-serving commentary nauseated me. He kept bringing the subject back to his particular
obsession -- World Youth Day -- and his personal connection with the pope. Thank goodness for Peter Mansbridge's trying to
inject a folksy chuckle now and then. And Sister Susan Kidd's sensible, down-to-earth attitude was refreshing. She frequently
referred to the deceased as "this man" rather than by one of the fawning honorifics.
On the subject of commentary, don't you hate the way the media have been tossing around these references to the crowds
as "the faithful" and "mourners"? I know those words are just handy journalistic short-cuts but they really bug me. As
if every tourist who shows up in Rome to try to get a piece of the action is "faithful" or "in mourning".
And all the media's clichés about the supposed charisma of the great man, all the testimony to the amazing effect he had
on people who met him. Don't they realize that celebrities have this charisma because we attribute it to them? Through the
influence of our culture and our tendency to hero-worship, we surround such people with a kind of glow, so naturally we think
they're special when they make eye contact with us. Granted, some celebrities are better at it than others. But I think almost
anybody's going to seem magical if you elevate him or her to a throne and make access to that person's august presence highly
restricted and privileged. Bump into the Queen pushing her shopping cart at the A & P and I don't think you'll be over-awed.
It was quite a nostalgia trip hearing all that Latin and Gregorian chant. Many decades since I've heard much of it. There
was, in fact, some good singing but, unfortunately, Father Rosica talked through the In Paradisum, that very sad but
uplifting hymn in which we ask the angels to bear the deceased into Paradise. It was always my favourite part of the traditional
The cameras didn't tell the really interesting story, though. Like, how did the thurifer keep the charcoal burning in the
censor? We altar boys always found it difficult to get up a good enough burn on the charcoal to last through a 20 minute Benediction.
So how do you get through a three hour stint outdoors on a windy day? Did they have four or five censors stoked up and waiting
in the wings? (All the incense reminded me of a friend who recounted something he'd witnessed in the Third World. A priest
was consoling family members on the death of a relative and they said, "That's ok, Father. For the funeral we want three priests
and lotsa smoke.")
Other questions: where were the toilets for the cardinals and the VIPs? Surely those elderly people couldn't have been
expected to last all that time without a whizz. And who was that English-speaking young man who did the second reading? Where
were the organ pipes? We saw a man seated at an organ, apparently outside the basilica, where the choir was stationed. Was
the console connected to the pipes inside and were the sounds being carried outdoors by speakers? How would the Vatican have
coped if it had rained? Do all the cardinals have to buy their outfits from the same haberdasher? Otherwise, how could you
get such a perfect consistency in the red hue of their robes, coming as they do from all over the world? Do the Swiss guards
ever get a chance to move or are they hired for their ability to stand rigid for hours on end? Even the guards at Buckingham
Palace get to tromp back and forth occasionally.
If the Church wanted to impose its power and majesty on us, it succeeded mightily. Especially in terms of the power. You
couldn't help but be impressed by an organization that could organize an event like that so smoothly and efficiently. There
was just enough concession to contemporary times -- some very slight involvement of women -- to indicate that maybe something
like the Second Vatican Council happened once upon a time, but the overall impression given by the ancient rituals was that
the monolithic majesty of the Church wasn't budging an inch. I had the feeling that they wanted to show that they're bigger
than me and that they'll outlast me. Nolo contendere!
When all's said and done, though, a man died. He lived among us on this earth and enjoyed life as we all do. No doubt,
it was as hard for him as for anybody to let go in the end. He got more chance than most of us to make his mark on the world
and, presumably, he did the best he could. Last week, the Globe and Mail published a picture of him taken in
the month that he was elected pope. He was sitting alone in a kayak by an overgrown river bank, looking down at something
he was reading. Oh, I know there was a gaggle of photographers within arm's reach. Still, the suggestion of quiet and solitude,
the human-ness of the picture appealed to me. I wish that was the way I could remember Karol Wojtyla.
The Leisure Society (Play) by François Archambault, translated by Bobby Theodore, directed by
Ken Gass. Factory Theatre, Toronto
On stage, two couples settle in for a night of heavy drinking. They play games and argue about babies. Horrible secrets
tumble out predictably.
I keep looking around the audience to see why they seem to be enjoying this so much. For the most part, they look like
a respectable United Church congregation. It appears they've never seen such an amazing play.
For me, it's shaping up to be a long night. Granted, the dialogue is clever and the decor is oh-so-cool: beige, grey and
off-white. There some good gags: one couple has bought a grand piano because they're planning to adopt a Chinese girl baby.
But none of these people is very likeable. The main problem is that, as theatre, it all feels so 1970s.
Until we get to the explicit sexual talk. Tons of it.Definitely not 1970s. All very graphic and in your face (you
should pardon the expression). At this point, the writer ratchets the dialogue up a few notches on the funny metre and the
action builds to a farcical pitch. The delighted church-goers are responding like they've got what they came for.
All four performers acquit themselves well enough. The two playing the hosts, Irene Poole and Richard Zeppieri, are the
more accomplished of the four. Miss Poole's strong performance is a touch too theatrical, though, for my taste. Her husky-throated,
drama queen style adds a certain gravitas to the play, but she never seems quite real to me.
On the other hand, Mr. Zeppieri has me believing in him all the way. He comes across as a very real person, an ordinary
man bewildered by the madness around him. (Mr. Zeppieri has an especially deft touch for self-deprecating humour. Think:
Jack Lemmon) Come play's bleak ending, you feel this man has been through a nightmare and learned something. Thanks
mostly to his convincing and authentic presence, I come away thinking maybe there's some point to the piece after all.
The Master (Novel) by Colm Tóibín (2004)
There's been a lot of buzz about this book. For instance, it was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I'm not sure why.
Could it have something to do with the combination of two distinguished writers -- one as author and one as subject? Ostensibly
a novel, it's based on the life of Henry James and the central character is, in fact, Henry James. For me, though, it doesn't
work as a novel because there's no plot and no forward movement. There isn't even any sense that the protagonist is moving
towards some sort of new awareness or some kind of insight.
So what's the point? Not biography, certainly, because you can't tell what's invented and what's factual. One of Mr. Tóibín's
goals seems to be to show us where James got ideas for his stories. Now and then we see a piece of fiction evolving from a
story James has heard or an encounter with an intriguing character. I doubt, however, that any of Mr. Tóibín's readers are
at the level of cultural sophistication where they burn with curiosity to know where a writer gets his ideas. I thought that
sort of question was confined to meetings between writers and vacant-headed royalty.
The book does work though as a kind of character study, each chapter using isolated incidents to build-up a picture of
James. (It could have been called Portrait of a Gentleman.) Here he is in full, living colour: intelligent, discreet,
dignified, fastitidious (not to say prissy) and courtly. For the most part, he watches life pass by and records it. In some
sections, so little happens that this could be an Anita Brookner piece. One chapter deals with the writer's inchoate longing
for a young sculptor but nothing whatever comes of it.
Surprisingly for a book by an Irish writer, grace and humour are in short supply. The dialogue does not sing. Several sentences
are downright clumsy. The simple matter of clarity about the antecedent of the third person pronoun is often bungled. In one
chapter, two of James' friends report to him daily about developments in the Oscar Wilde trial. The friends' names are given
but we know nothing about them; they seem interchangeable. An odd deficiency in a novel by such an acclaimed writer.
But I enjoyed reading this book. Maybe that's because the mood of Henry James' inner world was conveyed so well. Mr. Tóibín
casts a spell that pulls you in, never mind all your fussy reservations.