Mourning the pope
Special Coverage Index | NCR home page





Posted April 7, 2005 at 5:09 p.m. CDT

Europe debates how to mourn John Paul II

By Marc Mazgon-Fernandes

As Europe prepared for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, embarrassment seemed to prevail in European Union institutions unsure of how to mourn the late pontiff.

The European Commission in Brussels announced Monday that no signs of official mourning would be adopted but made a u-turn Tuesday. Probably prompted by the intense popular fervor being expressed in the world towards John Paul II, the Commission announced that flags would be at half-mast on Friday during the papal funeral.

The hesitation of the European Commission might be explained by the controversy raised a few months ago over the place of Christianity in Europe. In a debate over whether or not to include a reference to Europe's historical roots in Christianity, the European delegations showed a strong commitment to secularity.

The European Parliament, which had voted down an Italian would-be commissioner because of his Catholic-inspired views on homosexuality, announced that the 25 national flags it flies would be at half mast all the week. The irony of this prompted a columnist for London's Financial Times to ask, "Who said Europe is a godless continent?"

Meanwhile, members of France's Socialist left sharply criticized the decision of the government to fly flags at half-mast at all public buildings. They also protested the instructions of Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin for government employees to attend requiem Masses for the deceased pope.

The French government explained that its half-mast tributes were fitting for the late head of state of a state with which France has a "special relationship." Villepin added that the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I received similar expressions of public mourning without raising any concern for the secularity of the state.

Public sentiment seemed to side with the government not the protestors.

Even as this controversy played out, the municipal council of Paris contemplated baptizing a street or a place with the name of John Paul II. Possible places cited were the Champ de Mars, where John Paul celebrated a World Youth Day Mass in 1997, or the parvis of the Cathedral Notre of Dame.

European episcopates also seemed troubled by the public fervor for the deceased pope.

In France Monday, the newspaper Le Monde editorialized about the possible canonization of John Paul II. Tuesday the archbishop of Paris refused a request from young Catholics to organize a memorial service for the pope in a stadium with giant screens showing the television broadcast of Friday's funeral.

According to his press office, Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Paris wanted commemorations to be prayerful and reflective in keeping with the occasion and not like World Youth Day rallies. The French media, however, attributed the archbishop's refusal to a desire to quell any "cult of the personality" for the deceased pope.

Though there will be no stadium used, big screen TVs will be set up outside the Paris cathedral so the faithful can follow the funeral.

In Brussels, the Belgian capital, when the bells started tolling to announce the death of the pontiff late on April 2, the few faithful who went to the cathedral had to remain outside. The doors were locked. No church is open at that time. The greatest signs of grief were witnessed in the strong Polish community of Brussels.

The Episcopal conference of Belgium did announce that churches across the country would toll their bells on Friday at 10 a.m., the official beginning of the funeral in Rome.

The Belgian papabile Cardinal Godfried Danneels flew to Rome Tuesday evening. On departure, he held a press conference in the airport and predicted a short conclave, "two or three days," and that he would be back in Brussels at the end of it.

He said the conclave would be considering the needs of the church for today and tomorrow. What is important, he added, is not knowing from where the next pope will come "but that the best one will be chosen for the church."

According Danneels, the next pope should not imitate John Paul II but "do better."

Marc Mazgon-Fernandes is a freelance journalist who writes from Brussels.

Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280