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BENEDICT XVI: NEWS, PAPAL TEXTS, PHOTOS AND COMMENTARY

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Afterthoughts to
the Pope's Abruzzo visit


April 30, 2009


Given the atrocious PR run Benedict XVI has suffered of late, it’s probably par for the course that he turned in one of his best public performances of the year this week, and, at least outside Italy, almost no one was paying attention.

[Treating the Pope at work as a 'public performance' is most deplorable and unworthy, but unfortunately, throughout this item, Allen stays with his perspective of the Pope as an actor on the public stage who must curry popular favor and 'do PR'.

He is 'reviewing' the Pope's 'performance' here rather than reporting it as the wire services and the Italian media did at the time of the event. And if he felt that the story received scant attention then, it behooved him to file a story at the time, not after the fact.]


With the economy and swine flu dominating global headlines, Benedict’s three-hour visit on Tuesday to Abruzzo, the epicenter of an April 6 Italian earthquake that left almost 300 dead and 50,000 homeless, drew relatively scant international interest.

Those who were watching, however, saw Benedict deliver some sleeves-rolled-up, retail-level pastoral care, and his instincts seemed almost pitch-perfect.

Given the highly scripted nature of most papal activity, perhaps the day’s most striking feature was that the bulk of Benedict’s time was devoted to impromptu one-on-one encounters with survivors, family members, rescue workers, and local clergy.

He delivered just two brief speeches, and didn’t even celebrate a liturgy (save for reciting the Regina Caeli at the end of the morning.) [What, not a word ab about the Madonna of Roio and the Golden Rose he offered her, or the visit to Celestine V and leaving his inaugural pallium in homage???? The Madonna of Roio, in particular, is one of those precious local stories that normally, Allen would make a great deal of.]

At a large tent city in Onna, a small town almost completely wiped out by the quake, Benedict consoled a couple who lost all their children, as well as a local journalist whose father and two young children died when their house collapsed.

The day’s most vivid images were of the Pope holding the hands of survivors, embracing them, smiling and wiping their tears, and listening to their stories.

“If it were possible, I would have liked to go to every town and to every neighborhood, to go into all the tent cities and to meet everyone,” the Pope said, and it seemed that he meant it. [What do you mean, "It seems....'? Does anyone doubt the sincerity and literal truth of that statement? if he were 60 years old and not 82, is there a doubt in anyone's mind that he would not have done just that?]

Benedict had been scheduled to take a helicopter from Rome to Abruzzo, but a driving rain prevented it from lifting off, so the pope went by car instead. Temperatures hovered around freezing for most of the morning, but he never seemed in a rush to move on. [He never is, anywhere, under any circumstances!]

The day’s stagecraft also seemed designed to promote intimacy. When the Pope arrived in L’Aquila, a city of 100,000 which houses the famed medieval Basilica of Collemaggio, he made several turns through the crowd in a large piazza while standing in the back of an open-air jeep.

The scene evoked memories of a simpler era, as this is how the late Pope John Paul II used to greet pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square before the 1981 assassination attempt forced the Vatican to adopt the more secure popemobile.

Benedict offered a few brief words of consolation, without attempting a facile “explanation” of the tragedy.

“The entire Church is here with me, standing with you in your suffering,” the Pope told the victims, adding that The Lord “is not deaf to the anguished cry of so many families who have lost everything.”

Yet the Pope did not restrict himself to pieties, also calling for “effective solutions, as soon as possible, for those who are living in tents,” drawing sustained applause.

He also urged “a serious examination of conscience” from civic authorities, another line that generated strong applause, given that poor building standards and construction materials are widely believed to have contributed to the quake’s toll.

A local prosecutor has opened an investigation that could lead to criminal charges, and an official with Italy’s Civil Protection agency said that “in California, an earthquake like this would not have killed a single person.”

The sharp comments from the Pope formed the main headlines in most Italian papers, and seemed to articulate the country’s sentiments.

Of course, Benedict’s bravura performance arguably would have captured the world’s imagination to a far greater extent had he made his way to Abruzzo sooner.

[The 'timing' of the earthquake, Holy Monday, and the severity of its consequences which required massive and serious emergency work, both argued against a 'grandstand' gesture of rushing to the quake zone and interfering with the work, because the security and logistical arrangements necessary for a Pope's visit would have detracted from the emergency work.

Rushing to a disaster area is not a Pope's duty. Benedict's responses were prompt in terms of the statements he made over the next few weeks till he could personally visit, and the actual aid he personally sent: Vatican firemen were on the scene immediately to help out, he consecrated oil and Chrism specially for the diocese of L'Aquila on Maundy Thursday; he sent the Archbishop funds at his personal disposition to be given out to displaced victims and tide them over the immediate emergency; he sent the Secretary of State and his own personal secretary as his personal representative to the Funeral Mass which he could not attend.]


If he had come to celebrate the funeral Mass on April 10, for example, the visit would have fallen on Good Friday, making it irresistible for many media outlets. [The same arguments as above. Besides, the Pope does not do or say anything 'for PR' - which seems to be Allen's main concern - but because it is the right thing to do or say.]

But at least on this day, no matter how comparatively small the stage, Benedict XVI seemed at the top of his craft. {Again a statement that suggests the Pope keeps an eye on the PR aspect of what he does, and ending with the sort of throwaway colloquialism that has always bothered me about Allen because he does so even at the most inappropriate occasions. In this case, his entire metaphoric line of thought is to see the Pope as an actor playing to an audience.)


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