Sunday, April 24, 2005

Papa

It was April, and the Pope lay dying. I, banished from humanity with a fever of a hundred and three, lay amongst Kleenex and watched him go.

At least I thought I did. “He’s passed,” I said between coughs in solemn tones to a variety of concerned friends and family members when the crawl changed on CNN.

I had to call everybody back an hour later. “Yeah, sorry. He’s not quite dead yet.” You somehow expected the famously mischievous John Paul II—or, as I have long and lovingly called him, The Deuce—to stride forth on the balcony, fully mitred and white-robed, popping wheelies on the Popmobile and tipping both arms in the air the way he used to: “April Fool!” People ask me all the time why I traded a career in journalism for one in education, and I would like to introduce them all to Exhibit A: One of the most popular pontiffs in the history of the Catholic Church attains his eternal reward, and the world shall remember the moment in terms of a Monty Python sketch. Thanks, Fox. Nicely played, CBS.

Pope Death Watch 2005 largely consisted of laying claim to Catholic traditions I didn’t even know we had. This was new (big, pointy) hat to me. My mother, currently on her sixth Pope, served as the color commentator.

“When he does die, they’re going to turn the lights off in those windows, and close the shutters,” she told me as the cameras of the world focused on The Glasspanes of the Week in the papal apartments. My sister and Country The Brother-In-Law stayed up until midnight waiting for the moment; they went to bed disappointed. Non-Catholic friends offered to let me stand outside their homes while I watched them open and close shutters to my heart’s content, and were offended when I gently explained that it was, somehow, just not the same.

This was a man who shouted to adoring crowds of young adults, “Whoo-hoo-hoo, John Paul II, he love you!” and I have problems with the notion that he would not find amusing the specter of journalists clamoring to ask various priests and bishops what they felt was the most enduring aspect of, quote, “his twenty-seven year popeness.”

Indeed this pontiff, also once a college professor, loved the young, which is why I forked over an entire class period to a discussion of All Things Pope after I was well enough to return to my rightful place behind the overhead projector. My students, most of whom were not Catholic, had seen the Notre Dame pin on my Saint Mary’s College book bag. They had questions.

“So the guy who just died, he was Pope John Paul the Second, right?” one asked.

“Yes,” I said, drawing a big Roman numeral two on the blackboard.

There was a pause.

“So was his dad a Pope, too?”

I was up at four AM for the funeral, still coughing and hungry for nothing but Hawaiian Punch. You had to pick your network poison: The interpreter on CNN, having evidently learned Italian from an Olive Garden menu, translated maybe every eighth word, leaving us with the impression that the Pope “read… lethargic…seminary…war...God!” During commercial breaks, MSNBC was pushing the world premiere of “Keith Olbermann Counts Down the Worst and Most Bizarre Papal Conclaves in History!!” The CBS anchors wouldn’t shut up. EWTN had the best closeups of Jean-Pierre Raffarin's mole hair in order to capture over-the-shoulder shots of George W. Bush swaying back and forth and Bill Clinton casting nervous glances at the sky, but they had pre-empted something called Pope Fiction for the event and were clearly not to be trusted.

Meanwhile, on the simple cedar coffin, the pages on the book of the Gospel that rested there ruffled page on page in the wind until the last page had turned.

John Paul II, I miss you at: blondechampagne@hotmail.com

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