I knew I was in trouble that fateful Saturday when my friend Bernie literally kicked my door open and charged in — arms bristling with snack food, pizza boxes rammed under his armpits — a bulging sack from Mickey-D’s gripped in each fist.
"Bernie–" I cried, "What are you doing here?" I recoiled from the frizzy, dripping paper cup Bernie thrust at me, groaned as he gandy-danced through cascading boxes of cookies, cupcakes and bags of potato chips, and sighed as he plopped down in my favorite chair in front of the television.
"Go home, Bernie," I groaned. "I’m not hungry. CNN just announced that the Pope has died, and I don’t want to miss the coverage."
"Miss the coverage?" Bernie howled, "Miss the coverage! Before this week is over, both you and the Pope will be begging for mercy. CNN has been circling the Vatican like buzzards in search of fresh road kill since Easter!" He nodded at the TV, "Look at ’em — swooping down, shoving everybody out of the way, lickin’ their chops. Verily," Bernie said, rolling his eyes wearily, "It’s big time showtime…"
I am not Catholic. Yet, it’s difficult not to feel the sorrow of millions of devotees at the loss of Pope John Paul II. I cringe at calling anyone whose name isn’t Jesus "Holy Father," but there’s no doubt that John Paul II was indeed a great man, a shepherd worthy of the outpouring of love and grief that blanketed the world, or at least the world’s news outlets. According to Bernie, if we’re to believe CNN, "the most trusted name in news," nothing has occurred in the history of the world — of the entire universe — as important as this one event.
"Well," I said, diving for the last piece of pizza, "if CNN is going to dig into John Paul II’s background and take us through every day of his life, at least we’ll hear that he disapproved of the war and thought Bush’s attack on Iraq was immoral. If CNN talks about his legacy, how can they not address the legions of pedophile bishops and priests who sexually abused thousands of young boys and girls on his watch?"
"Culture of life," Bernie said. "All that stuff will fall under the general heading of the Culture of Life, and how famously the Pope connected with young people. There will be no mention of how infamously the Pope’s priests connected — are still connecting — with young people. When Bush boards Air Force One to go home," Bernie continued, "CNN will have elevated him to the spiritual level of John Paul. They will be locked at the hip — two holy men on a "culture of life" mission to spread freedom and rid the world of –"
"Oh come on, Bernie," I interrupted. "Everyone knows how John Paul disagreed with Bush on the death penalty. We’ve all heard the Pope’s speeches on the evils of galloping corporatism — his pleas to Bush to be merciful to the poor. CNN won’t — can’t — cover that up, even if they want to." I looked at Bernie, who stared back at me, silently chewing. "Bernie? You think?
"Yeah," Bernie said, ramming a cookie into his mouth, "that’s the difference between you and me. I think. I think the Pope fought everything Bush stands for with all his might — he publicly called on world leaders, especially those on the UN Security Council, to thwart Bush’s resolution on Iraq and to ward off the destruction he knew the Bush administration was planning. He even sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, a friend of Poppy’s, as his special envoy to plead with Bush not to invade Iraq, but Bush told him it would all be over in the wink of an eye. Just trust me, Bush says. I think," Bernie continued, "as does investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, that the Pope, if not convinced, was at least fearful that Bush was the anti-Christ warned about in The Revelation.
"Madsen pointed out that Pope John Paul, who grew up facing the evils of Hitler and Stalin, knows evil when he sees it," Bernie said. "And, although he appeared to be blind about the evil actions of leaders of his own flock, I think the Pope battled Bush until his strength gave out and he became the whispering, robotically waving man in the window.
"You know what else I think?" Bernie asked as he stood up and strode toward the door — "I think CNN will report the truth about the Pope’s relationship with Bush at the exact moment a pack of spasmic demons fly over the Vatican in perfect formation, hissing out hate-filled bile while spewing off-color versions of The Star Spangled Banner…"
What a nightmare. CNN tirelessly soldiered on toward the funeral, passing the John Paul II baton from anchor to anchor, from pundit to panel, with testimonies of pilgrims from Poland to Paduka. Bernie was right. I don’t know about the Pope, but when the "big day" arrived, I was begging for mercy.
The sheer obscenity of a dozen pallbearers bearing a haggard, unembalmed Pope on their shoulders, staggering up and down stairs and lurching through narrow church halls, was soul-withering. Flanked by clownish Swiss Guard troops resplendent in ghoulish Halloween orange and yellow knickers with bright red feathers bobbing on their helmets, and preceeded by a group of stately religious figures decked out in lace dresses and bright red capes, they lugged poor John Paul inside, outside, through every nook, cranny and chamber of the Vatican, in and out of St. Peter’s Square — hours and hours, miles and miles, round and round, up and down.
A suffocating, pornographic celebration of death.
Scribes heralded the rapid ascension of John Paul to a saintly throne, while the gang of international Pharisees, led by George Bush, sat shoulder-to-shoulder in ring-side seats beside those whom they planned to kill as soon as the show was over. As I watched them preening and praying before the cameras, I was reminded of the righteous anger of Jesus in Luke 11:43-44 — "Woe to you Pharisees! For how you love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the respectful greetings from everyone as you walk through the markets! Yes, awesome judgment is awaiting you. For you are like hidden graves in a field. Men go by you with no knowledge of the corruption they are passing…"
Unfortunately, when religion is infused with politics, power and advantage will ultimately top reason and prayer. Aristotle says the highest of the intellectual virtues is prudence. Jesus says the highest of Christian virtues is love. When these two virtues are cast aside, politics and religion become strange bedfellows. When, as Masden contends, dangerous right-wing ideologues couple political fanaticism with a neo-Christian blood cult, they become eerie same-sex partners.
Because of the Pope’s open criticism of Bush, wherein he pointed out on more than one occasion the obvious fact that Bush’s behavior and attitude were anything but Christian, it would seem that Bush could not get away with co-opting John Paul’s considerable legacy. Yeah. It would seem. When asked about the Pope’s legacy by the press corps on the way to Rome, former president Bill Clinton remarked that the pontiff "may have had a mixed legacy, but he had a great feel for human dignity. He did what he thought was right," Clinton said. "That’s about all you can ask of anybody."
Bush was quick to dispute Clinton. He said the Pope "was a witness to the dignity of human life," the first pontiff in history who "launched a democatic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history." Sound familiar? Bush heralded John Paul as a passionate advocate for the sanctity of life. "He was a moral leader — someone who I shared values with, particularly when you talk about that kind of culture of life, the social issues that he talked about."
Well, looks like Bernie was right again. When Air Force One cleared the tarmac and headed toward Prairie Chapel Texas, it was carrying history’s remaining self-appointed moral leader, still enamoured by the "majesty" of the funeral mass, committed to his own opposite version of the co-opted "culture of life," and surrounded by adoring media.
Bush didn’t look back. The Pope is dead. Long live the Pope.
Bill Clinton hopped a ride back to the states in a backup Air Force airplane.