ROME – If it’s one of those days and you’re inclined to start moaning about the Vatican, it’s honestly hard to know where to start and stop: It’s clericalist, certainly, but also often benighted, obtuse, obstructionist, revanchist, spectacularly tone-deaf and inept, sometimes corrupt and, once in a while, just outrageously embarrassing.
Pope Francis famously cataloged 15 spiritual diseases of the Roman Curia in his first Christmas address to the top Vatican brass, but if he were being graded by historians and experts, he’d probably get an incomplete.
Of course, we all know that if we didn’t have a Vatican we’d have to invent it, because the Church needs a central administration, and anyway, let’s face it – the dysfunction and messiness of the place is part of its charm.
But fair’s fair, so if we’re going to moan about the Vatican – and, in many ways, isn’t that the favorite indoor sport of Catholics everywhere? – we also need to acknowledge its strengths, and high on that list has to be its remarkable sense of drama.
The thought comes to mind in light of a Saturday essay on the Italian version of the HuffPost by an Italian playwright, stage and screen director and screenwriter by the name of Massimiliano Perrotta.
Perrrotta, let’s be clear, is no lapdog of the Catholic Church. Yet when he was asked by the HuffPost to pen a piece about the coronavirus experience seen through the lens of theater, he didn’t hesitate to name Pope Francis’s haunting Urbi et Orbi blessing staged March 27 in an empty St. Peter’s Square as the single most dramatically apt moment.
“No theatrical event in this 2020 will be more moving or necessary than the rite against the coronavirus celebrated by Pope Francis on March 27,” Perrotta wrote.
“We were all terrorized that day, segregated as the virus claimed victim after victim in our country,” he wrote. “Scientists still didn’t know how to explain its wickedness. As an antidote, Pope Francis wanted to hold a prayer broadcast on television, a kind of metaphysical exorcism against the contagion.”
“At the end of the ritual, with hands that were almost trembling, the pope held up a monstrance for the blessing while the sound of bells prevailed over the lament of the rain, and as the chilling sound of an ambulance approached and then vanished.”
“No director,” Perrotta wrote, “could have invented such a powerful scene.”
In terms of numbers, more than 17 million Italians watched the Urbi et Orbi blessing that Friday evening, which is roughly a quarter of the entire national population. It was good enough for a 65 percent share of the country’s TV audience at that hour, making it the highest rated single broadcast during the coronavirus quarantine.
For those with long memories, it was another example of the Vatican serving up exactly the right imagery and symbolism to capture a powerful moment.
Anyone who experienced it, for example, will never forget the funeral rite for St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on April 8, 2005. For one thing, there was the inspired choice of a simple wooden casket adorned solely with a book of the gospels, whose pages fluttered in the wind. Nothing could have better captured the spirit of a life spent in service to the gospel, and those pictures were on the front page of every newspaper in the world the next day.
On the “unforgettable” meter, there’s also that incredible helicopter ride of Pope Benedict XVI the night of his resignation from the papacy on February 28, 2013, when he traveled from the Vatican to his temporary residence at Castel Gandolfo as the bells sounded in St. Peter’s. Cameras followed the helicopter the entire way, and it seemed straight out of Fellini, expressing the monumental nature of the moment better than any speech or learned essay possibly could.
Then, of course, there was the equally powerful moment after Benedict XVI gave his final salute from the balcony of the apostolic palace at Castel Gandolfo. When the clock struck 8:00 p.m. local time, the hour in which the resignation took effect, the two Swiss Guards standing watch in front of the main entrance to the papal clicked their heels and withdrew, because their mandate is to protect the pope – the reigning pope, that is, not a retired one. Their place was taken by members of the Vatican Gendarmes, responsible not only for the pope’s protection but the Vatican’s physical plant.
Vatican communications personnel were smart enough to leave the cameras rolling the entire time, and I guarantee, all across Rome, even in the most embittered anti-clerical venues, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Catholicism is a sacramental faith, in which adherents believe visible signs communicate invisible grace, and it’s also deeply liturgical, with a keen sense of rite and ritual. Perhaps that’s why headquarters also has such a good eye for drama, seemingly always knowing how to stage a cathartic scene in the just-right moment.
However one explains it, no one who experienced the coronavirus in Italy will ever forget that March 27 evening, and they’ll be joined by countless millions others around the world who watched at a distance.
Say what you will about the Vatican, that’s no mean feat – just ask Massimiliano Perrotta and his colleagues, who probably wish they could pull off such an iconic scene just once in their careers.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.