Final Curtain

by Stephen Heuser | April 11, 2005

Easter Sunday at St. Peter's Square ought to be one of those perfect collisions of time and place, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Thanksgiving in New England. But this year, I happen to be living in Rome during the strangest Easter in memory, when the Pope's mysterious illness completely overshadows even the elaborate pageantry of Holy Week. And so, on Easter Sunday morning, I found myself anxiously standing in front of St. Peter's Basilica, shoulder-to- shoulder with religious pilgrims and curious visitors, waiting for the famous Easter Mass to begin, wondering if I was there out of respect, journalistic interest, or mere ghoulish voyeurism.

In one sense, waking up early and walking to the Vatican seems like the obvious thing to do in Rome this time of year. From Palm Sunday to Easter, the city is garlanded with tourists. Grocery stores bloom with foil-wrapped chocolate eggs the size of footballs, and it is impossible to avoid the colomba pasquale, a traditional sugar-coated cake shaped roughly like a dove. On Good Friday, a chunk of the city center closes down for a dramatic reenactment of the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum. There is no such thing as an empty hotel room, and every list of "high season" prices is timed to include Easter weekend. And, of course, the climactic experience for every pilgrim in Rome is the moment at noon on Sunday when the Pope personally blesses the crowd.

Or not. This year, the most optimistic thing you could say was that the Vatican had not formally canceled Easter. By Sunday, the Pope had not spoken in public in two weeks. His last official appearance had been on giant projection screens via video link on Good Friday--when he was filmed, creepily, from behind. (Skeptics here watched carefully to be sure the Pope actually moved.) So, by noon on Easter, all 70,000 people jammed into St. Peter's Square were focused not on the outdoor Mass being solemnly celebrated in front of them, but on a single window high in an adjacent palazzo. It was the window of the papal apartment, and, all around me, people craned for a look the 84-year-old man with Parkinson's at the center of the whole thing. Theologically, this seemed troubling. It's true that Christianity promises redemption at the hands of one suffering, dying man, but that man is not supposed to be the Pope.

By the time you read this, Pope John Paul II may have died, he may be recovering, or he may have slid further toward incapacitation. It is no coincidence that end-of-life ethics have achieved new prominence in Vatican press releases, or that every development in the Terri Schiavo case has been followed with rapt attention in the Italian media, which faces the prospect of the first Pope on life support. The Vatican's thinkers are bold about wading into specifics in such matters; so far, they have made clear that a feeding tube and IV are a moral obligation, the modern equivalent of providing food and water to a sick person. The moral status of a ventilator remains less clear.

If the tricky ethics of life support are the Vatican's problem, determining the Pope's condition is the daily nightmare of the Vatican press corps. From the moment that an Italian journalist broke the story of the Pope's hospitalization in early February, reporters in the normally calm, privileged world of Rome bureaus have lived in worried exhaustion. One reporter I know spent several nights camped out at Policlinico Gemelli, the Catholic teaching hospital where the Pope stays in a private tenth-floor suite; another reporter in the Vatican press room confided to a friend that she had not had a day off in a month. "Of course I don't want it to happen," she said, everyone understanding what "it" was. "But, then again, I wish it just would."

The Easter crowd in front of St. Peter's had traveled from Portugal, Slovakia, the United States, the Philippines, and dozens of other countries to see something happen, but not "it." And so, at the end of the Mass, when the Vatican's secretary of state read a benediction, 70,000 necks swiveled upward and rightward. The gauzy curtains to the papal apartments parted. A tiny white- robed figure was wheeled into view, hunched but steady. The ailing Pope held his hand up. The crowd immediately burst into applause. I watched him through binoculars; from one side of the window, a black-sleeved arm appeared silently and adjusted the Pope's cap. The Pope conspicuously failed in his one attempt to talk--a kind of Darth Vader breathing sound came over the giant speakers-- but his grip on the situation looked firm. When the cardinal read the words "natural catastrophes," the Pope grasped his head with his hands, pantomiming woe. I was unexpectedly moved. This tiny, frail figure was making a heroic effort to communicate with us. People around me were dabbing their eyes, crying. They were not voyeurs. But not everyone was moved to piety and reverence by the holiness of the Pope's suffering. Some, it seemed, were moved by his mere celebrity. After the Pope's appearance, dozens of teenagers formed an impromptu mosh pit and chanted for an encore. I was caught behind a conga line. These kids had not come for Mass. They had come to see, perhaps for the last time, the most famous person in the world.

Like Ronald Reagan, Karol Wojtyla started out as an actor, and his pontificate has always been more than tinged by the theatrical. Now his career as a policy figure is essentially over, and what's left are only these pure, brief moments of human drama. Watching the teenagers dance, I had to wonder: Should the Pope have tried to rein in his own celebrity? Is this need for adulation a human flaw in the Pope, or in us? For a minute I was pleased to have had such a profound thought, and then I realized that this question is the plot of Jesus Christ Superstar. The disciples in the musical, you will recall, worry that Jesus' personal celebrity is outshining his message. They debate this to the lite-rock stylings of early Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, with about one billion adherents worldwide, the Pope is perhaps fated to be a popular icon. Nevertheless, I have the sense that the increasingly kinetic power of fame is something the Church will have to wrestle with after John Paul II's successor takes the stage in St. Peter's Square.

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