Sunday, September 09, 2007
Travelling with the Pope
I had the opportunity to take a quick walk along the majestic pedestrian area of downtown Vienna. The pope’s three day visit took me here. Giant television screens broadcasting live every move of the German pontiff loomed large above busy shoppers on this rainy Saturday afternoon. On Sunday Benedict XVI celebrated Mass at the St. Stephen Cathedral, the heart of this beautiful capital.

On Friday, speaking to an audience of German officials and members of the diplomatic corps, the pope slammed abortion, euthanasia and raised concerns about the future of Europe, a continent he said where everybody should be concerned that “the day will never come when only stones speak of Christianity. He urged the youngster to make babies and create families”.

These words, pronounced in his native German, resounded in my mind as I observed the scene around me. I sat down at a small kiosk selling Wiener Bratwurst (a delicious local sausage) served with brown bread and a small draft beer. It drizzled, but no one seemed to care that much.

No one seemed to care about the pope either. Most of the thousands of people walking below the television screens passed them without paying any attention. Sure there were a few who were listening, a few others taking pictures laughing, as if they were right there with the pope. But the vast majority were clearly involved in what the pope would describe (he did it again here in Vienna) as “terribly misguided courses of action”. More precisely, “the degradation of man resulting from theoretical and practical materialism, and finally the degeneration of tolerance into indifference with no reference to permanent values.”

Wow. Right there, the pope talking about values, tolerance, generosity and openness and no one listened. In my six years covering the Vatican and the pope it had never happened to actually observe a generic crowd (as opposed to a crowd of people who gathered on purpose to see and listen to the pope).

I kept observing what was happening around me. The amazing thing about Viennese people is their ability to sit outside drinking coffee and smoking despite rain and uncomfortable temperature (everyone seems to smoke here, and this must be one of the last cities in Europe where you can do it in restaurants indoor. I noticed three young women in their late-20s taking a seat and ordering ice cream (yes that too seemed odd given the cold). I wondered whether they had heard the pope’s exhortation to young married couples to establish new families and to become mothers and fathers. I wondered if the pope had an audience here.

Fighting my journalistic instinct I decided against bothering these three friends, enjoying a Saturday afternoon out (I never assume that people enjoy answering journalists’ questions while they are trying to take a break). But I couldn’t help thinking that the answer to my queries was all around me.

The people ignoring the pope vastly outnumbered those who were even simply curious. Opinion polls issued ahead of the pontiff’s visit suggested only 3% of Austrians had any interest in actually seeing the pope live, while a good 40% said they would ignore him completely.

Vatican analyst John Allen wrote in his brilliant weekly column that here answering a question about who is their most trusted international figure, Austrians put Benedict XVI behind the Dalai Lama and the Austrian-born governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are many reasons for this. Among them a series of high profile sex abuse scandals that shook the Catholic Church here, forcing the resignation of Vienna’s Archbishop in 1995 and almost a decade later the closure of a seminary after more than 40,000 pornographic images were discovered on computers there.

In an attempt to reach out to Austria’s ailing Catholic Church, the pope told reporters on board his plane on the way here, that he was grateful to all those who remained faithful in these difficult years: laity, the religious and the priests. But he also conceded that these difficulties haven’t been totally overcome yet, saying he hoped his visit would help healing the wound.

“Unlikely” I thought to myself, as I took one more look around me, washing down the last sausage bite with the beer. But he is the pope, and no one can fault him for trying.

-- From Alessio Vinci, CNN Rome Bureau Chief, travelling with the Pope.
I feel terribly sad for the kind of people who venerate Arnold Schwarzenegger above the Pope and for those who cannot see beyond the scandals in the Church to the beauty and the truth that is in its message.

Although this Pope is more conservative than I am, his writings are beautiful and I have really enjoyed his televised homilies when I've viewed them on EWTN.

He certainly is not a "soundbite Pope", nor one who is given to popularism, but you see another side of him in his writings. His encyclical "Deus Caritas Est", or "God is Love", is so beautifully written, and contains so many insights the world can learn from.

It's the Viennese's loss that they can't bring themselves to show some respect to the Pope or give his message a chance. He had a much larger audience in Mariazell, where the town seemed to be one solid mass of people standing there in the rain to hear him.

I wish he'd come to the United States soon so we could get a chance to see him in person and hear what he has to say to us, especially about world peace.
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Of course people have a tendency towards ignoring outdoor TV, no matter who is speaking during the rain, but I'm surprised that the polls show a lack of interest in the Pope in Austria. Perhaps Germany is more receptive to the Pope's messages about childbearing and families, but economics aside, being part of a Christian and/or a Roman Catholic family involves patience, being kind and letting children and parents reach decisions about their Christianity and the way that they practice Jesus Christ's teachings while also being free to talk about the ways of the world, and our place as Roman Catholics inside and outside of the worldly reference point.
The problem with this type of proclamation is that the Vatican is obviously of the opinion that they are the official seat of power in Europe, if not the world. Condemning the populace for not being pious enough is something one would expect from the Taliban, in a system of government where ecclesiastical wrongs can face severe secular, or even capital, punishments. Membership in a religion is voluntary by the individual, and certainly not enforceable by any law, at least not in democratic nations.

For people to take for granted that a religious leader or organization can dictate the behavior of an entire continent hearkens back to the dark days of the Holy Roman Empire, and is certainly not consistent with the state of learning and cultural advancement one would expect in the 21st century. It demeans the faith as well as the concept of democracy to think that the world can be guilted or shamed into complying with the archaic, sometimes draconian, dogma of an organized religion.
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