Tuesday 21 September 2010

Pope here

15st 6lb, 4.5 units. My favourite image of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was of a gable end in Belfast on which some Protestant zealot had painted, in huge and regular letters, “No Pope Here”, and some wag had added underneath in another hand “Lucky Bloody Pope”. I thought of it as the current incumbent of the throne of Peter landed in Edinburgh last week – which, if Heathrow conveys the impression of a Third World country, as one of his cardinals foolishly if accurately observed last week, must be considered lucky if it manages to scrape into the Fifth World after a couple of recounts.

In the old days we could have looked forward to the Rev Ian Paisley leading a crowd of dour, whey-faced, gabardine-wearing Protestants in a good old-fashioned rant. But now he has been displaced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, damning Benedict XVI as “a leering old villain in a frock” and “the head of the world's second most evil religion”. So what would the most evil be, then, Professor? Or shall we just leave people to draw their own conclusions, since its adherents might just be the sort not to turn the other cheek but to cut your head off, with a blunt knife, on camera. Never pleasant, that sort of thing.

I wonder how it is possible to make some of the accusations levelled against the Pope without falling foul of some sort of incitement law?

What with spending so much of my time driving back and forth between Northumberland and Cheshire, I missed nearly all of the media coverage of the Pope’s little outing, but everything I heard a about it beforehand was almost entirely negative. I was therefore surprised, on turning on the BBC News at 10 o’clock on Sunday evening, to find a series of people describing it as “a triumph”. What on earth could have gone right? I decided to devote my weekly newspaper column to the subject.

I was brought up in an atmosphere of mild anti-Catholic prejudice, but there was no getting away from the fact that the prettiest girls in our street were all from the large families with the plaster saints on their mantelpieces. Not that I ever got anywhere with any of them: I was much too shy for that. But when I finally did manage to start forming relationships with women, for some reason many of them proved to be of the Catholic persuasion. I used to think that their tendency to burst into tears after sex was the result of Catholic guilt, and this might not be a good thing. But then I realized that the Protestants and atheists did it too, and it was just a reflection of the horror of experiencing intimate relations with me.

Some of them paid lip service (which could be a rather filthy joke, but isn’t) to their religion’s strictures against contraception, and the fact that none of them got even remotely pregnant lulled me into a false sense of security about my own infertility. The ultimate consequence of which can be seen smiling in several photographs further back in this blog.

As for services, of an ecclesiastical nature, I rather got to like them. Well, the grand ones at the Brompton Oratory or Westminster Cathedral, at any rate. Where the words were Latin, the music uplifting, the vestments gorgeous and the choreography superb. Unfortunately one of my companions worked out after a while that my enthusiasm for the Brompton Oratory also had a lot to do with the potential for happily surveying the arses of row upon row of lovely young ladies kneeling in prayer, and she started insisting that we went to another church in Kensington were the service was in Irish-accented English, the pervading smell was of overboiled cabbage rather than of incense, and the social range of the congregation spanned the full gamut from charlady to tramp. Oh, what a snob I am! But it has to be said that the modern Roman Catholic liturgy is even more uninspiring than the Anglican one, and that really is a world class triumph of cloth-eared incompetence.

Sadly I felt obliged to leave out of my column the observation that anyone who was in the Hitler Youth can’t be all bad, and some musings on the "Pope on a rope" novelty shower accessory that was, I feel reasonably sure, one of the more popular mementoes of the last Papal visit to the UK, back in 1982. If am right, it seems to have been a major failure of imagination and marketing nous by the Fry / Dawkins / Tatchell coalition not to launch an updated “Pope on a rope” last week, complete with gallows.

Papal history, with special reference to Pius IX, was my specialist subject in my last year as an undergraduate, so I am aware that there is a long history of cardinals electing to the Papacy old men who are not expected to reign long, but who then enjoy a remarkable new lease of life once in office. It would suit me if Benedict XVI proved to be one such, despite his own predictions and those of the loons who, elsewhere on the internet, predict that he will soon be succeeded by the last Pope of all: Satan. Now that really will be a Papal visit to the UK to watch out for.

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