|Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome|
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations
In case you're wondering, no, there was no SNAP demonstration at the Vatican yesterday, at least not in the style to which a democratic society is accustomed.
Or put it this way: If there was a demonstration in the piazza of St. Peter's yesterday, nobody I know saw it. I'm sure of that because I went down to St. Peter's Basilica myself to gauge the effect of such a thing on a Vatican audience. Instead, all I saw were swirling bodies of tourists on the square, gaggles of spike-haired Italian school children pushing through metal detectors on their way to the basilica, tired tourists lined up along the railings that define the area of liturgical celebration and straining sightseers trying to capture an array of Cardinals on photos taken too far away, too small, to be recognized.
Mass went on as scheduled, sound systems overhead boomed out the prayers while crowds of onlookers poured around the outside edges of the basilica, listening to tour guides, gawking at the oversize statues or trying to decide if the corpse-like figures under the altars were real bodies or wax effigies. "How," I wondered, "did any message even begin to get through to the center of a system like this?"
But why are we surprised? Try to imagine what it would take in a Square that holds 350,000 people to stage a protest that the other possible 349,998 people could see.
In fact, the two SNAP demonstrators, leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who traveled all the way from the United States to protest the appearance of Cardinal Bernard Law as one of the celebrants of the nine memorial masses for the late Pope John Paul II, were confined to a small area beyond the colonnade, outside Vatican territory, police at the ready.
That does not mean that the gesture was futile or useless or without meaning, however. Paparazzi swarmed everywhere. As one person put it, the demonstration was “two people and a crush of cameras.”
Most of all, it does not mean that they weren't seen. It simply means that they weren't seen in the Square. It also means that what used to take a riot to establish, now takes a video camera. It means that messages that are not welcomed can be communicated in other ways, some of them more forceful than the first.
In fact, the effect of this quiet, controlled non-demonstration may have been made even more powerful by suppressing it than it might have been had it been simply ignored. First, CNN international ran short clips on Cardinal Law’s ‘novemdialis’ mass every half hour on the hour. Then, at the end of the primetime news day, the channel did a full hour of in-depth reporting on the US priest-pedophile scandal and the role of US bishops, particularly Cardinal Bernard Law, in the cover-up of the story and a kind of toleration of the behavior. What might have become more a matter of future cooperation on such issues--hopefully mutual, hopefully open--became an unstaunched open sore again. What was not seen in the piazza was seen around the world.
Some say the issue is forgiveness, that Cardinal Law and others like him, not themselves the perpetrators, have recognized their complicity in the situation and repented it. They must be allowed to go on.
Some say that Law’s role as celebrant of one of the major masses celebrating the life of John Paul II was not a privilege, it was simply a duty that comes with being Archpriest of St. Mary Major.
Others, the survivors, say that the issue is blatant disregard for the abused and signals continued toleration of the abuse. “It says that there are no consequences for this behavior,” Barbara Blaine, one of the protestors, said.
In the end, it raises as much a question for the whole church, you and I included, as it does for the institutional church itself in an era when the very concept of sin is changing. What is forgiveness and what does it require of the rest of us? What is justice and what does it require of us all? What is support and how do we show it?
These questions are not pertinent to the church alone. The whole society, every town in the United States, is wrestling with the question of the toleration of half-way houses, with the question of the public identification of past offenders, with the public rehabilitation of prisoners.
Do not doubt for a moment that these questions won’t factor into the election of a new pope, as well. Subterranean, perhaps, but real—however controlled, however protected the piazza of St. Peter’s might be from the unsavory presence of public protestors.
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