On the wall in my study here in Lewes in England, I have a gilded crucifix that a friend gave me when we were on a visit to Rome for a meeting in The Vatican.
I wasn’t going to see the Pope about the possibility of me becoming a cardinal or even a priest, I was planning a television concert that I hoped to put on in the magnificent basilica of St. Peter’s. I didn’t see His Holiness, as I would have been required to call him if I had, but I was, or so it seemed for a few eerie moments, within the portals of the holiest of holies.
Actually I spent a very enjoyable time with the Papal press officer who took me to places that ordinary and much more worthy pilgrims than me would have been delighted in seeing – not so much Michelangelo’s supreme sistine chapel ceiling as all those fascinating backroom places where the real business of running the world’s Catholic empire takes place.
Rather surprzingly, I got all my permissions and an, in principle agreement that the Pope would put in an appearance at my event but, sadly, the project died at the hands of much more powerful leader than the His Holiness, a television commissioning editor at our great British public broadcasting institution, the BBC. I have no problem with that though…I would rather put my trust in the media than I would in religious leaders, well intentioned as most of them are.
I kept that crucifix though and, even though I have moved houses since then, I did put it back up again in the new place, more as a souvenir, I have to confess, than as a sacred object but I like having it there all the same.
In Britain this week, the newspapers and television stations are telling us that we are going to have an historic but possibly unenthusiastically recieved state visit from the Pope but that tickets for his biggest gigs are a bit slow in shifting but then the Roman Catholic church has been getting a lot of bad press of late.
I think it is a bit unfair to blame Pope Benedict for all those paedophile priests but he does have some awkward explanations to give before I would be that inspired to hear him preach on contraception, homosexuality, women’s rights and a number of other issues. I don’t actually go along with his bigger issues either, like the immaculate conception, the ressurection or original sin so I am not getting too incensed by his position on social issues – I just wish more people in catholic countries would learn to take him with more than just a pinch of salt.
Just as I didn’t want that American pastor to burn the Koran this week, so I hope that the British will not turn the papal visit into an ugly scene of relgious hatred. I suspect Benedict is a kindly and rather brave old geezer who has some interesting things to say about sociey which, certainly in the West, has little reason to think that it has all the answers.
So maybe Benedict is a relgious relic just like that crucifix on the wall in my study but relics have their value even if they ar ethere just to encourage us to rethink our own prejudices. Thinking about this I remembered that I also keep a rosary in my brief case – I have to be careful I know in confessing to this as I might find myself as a miracle-working candidate for sainthood without even trying. Rather like the crucifix, this rosary was a present from Italy and my reasons for keeping it are more sentimental, I think, than sacred.
I was making a film in Pompeii, not the fascinating archaeological remains but in the car park next door where a very jolly priest was running a busy ceremony where he was blessing the cars of the faithful if the drivers took a detour into a designated sacred traffic lane. Why not? I thought but I didn’t see any corresponding calming on the Italian roads.
That trafic priest gave me the rosary as a gift and I duly slipt it into my case where it has stayed ever since. Why I wonder in those odd moments when I notice it. I suppose it just seems wrong to throw it away.
I feel the same about a piece of crystal that another mystical traveller gave me whilst I was making a programme about New Age cults. This equally devote and, in my opinion, misguided woman told me that I should make sure that I was the only one to touch this my own personal crystal and, if anyone else did pick it up, I should cleanse it in salty water. Once more I expressed my thanks and put the thing away in my pocket.
It still sits on my desk and I do pick it up at times in moments of stress of anxiety and find it strangely comforting. Nonsense I know but, just like the rosary and the crucifix, it has managed to stay with me as a benign but little noticed force in my life
They are souvenirs but they are significant enough for me to respect other people’s faith in relics so I am not going to knock the Pope on his State visit to Britain even if I really disapprove of much that he has to say.
Anyway, on a subsequent visit to the Vatican, I was walking with another friend towards St. Peter’s when I saw a picture of Pope Benedict’s predecessor, the then recently deceased Pope John Paul, I made an easy and light-hearted joke at his expense but failed to look where I was going. I tripped on a paving stone in front of the picture, ripped the knee of my favourite jeans and limped around the Sistine Chapel with blood trickling down my leg. It seems that you can’t be too careful about what you say when it comes to popes. You need all the friends you can get these days.
Fortunately, I am told, my torn jeans look really trendy these days. Phew – it’s a miracle!
There's a fun article on the BBC about papal souvenirs. These people may have faith, but not taste.
I thought that the electric candle looked like a vibrator. Does that make me a bad person?
I think, Cluadio, you will have to do a penance my child but I will set you an easy one.
So, how do you feel about Benedict now that he's implied atheism and nazism are somehow linked?
He is a bit like Gordon Brown I think…he is an intellectual who follows a line of thought to its conclusion without always realizing that it can get him into trouble with people who are looking to attack him for crimes that he doesn't commit.
I think he is comparing atheism in its aggressive form to the type of godlessness that he saw in Nazi Germany.
It is odd now for him to get accused of calling all atheists Nazis especially as a number of "aggressive atheists" tend to call him a Nazi because of his having to be in the Nazi youth movement.
I think he is trying to make a point about the dangers of a society without a moral code but I don't think he is branding honest disbelief with Nazism.
There is a danger in us condemning the man for his beliefs and for Western society to take an increasingly intolerant atitude to other people's belief systems.
the contraception, embryo research, female ordination and opposition to civil partnership questions certainly divide me from his position as it does many others but I regret the way that it can often seem to be the atheists these days who are leading the witch hunts…there is a certain irony there I think.