LA STAMPA

Saint Or Pop Superstar? John Paul II’s Beatification Blurs Sacred Lines

The kitsch that accompanied John Paul in life and in death is in full force ahead of Sunday’s ceremony that puts him on the road to Sainthood. Are the faithful really just devoted fans?

John Paul merchandise is eternally on sale in Rome. (Radio Nederland)
John Paul merchandise is eternally on sale in Rome. (Radio Nederland)
Mattia Feltri

ROME - The Vatican is again facing the risk that Karol Wojtyla could be turned into a pop icon rather than a saint. Already during the long days of his illness, and later, after his death, people around the world expressed an unconditional love for Pope John Paul II that bordered on idolatry. It was not clear whether they were moved by his new Christian anthropology or by popular appeal alone.

A glance at the shop windows of Rome in the run up to the Polish pope's beatification Sunday could raise the same doubts. The street leading to St Peter's Square, via della Conciliazione, resembles a bazaar. T-shirts on sale for six euros celebrate the beatification as a "historical event". All sorts of goods and goodies are dedicated to John Paul II: ashtrays, glasses, mugs, plates, bottle openers, thimbles, pens, fans, at least twelve kinds of post cards, photos albums, scarves, neckerchiefs, magnets and mouse pads.

Approaching St Peter's Square, every newsstand is displaying Wojtyla calendars, posters, photos, and magazines with special biographies. Posters with two opposing messages adorn the walls of the Italian capital Dàmose da fa", semo romani ("Let's get to work, we are Romans," which he once said in the local dialect), reads one. I looked for you, now you have come to me, and for this I thank you, quotes another, which were reportedly John Paul II's final words.

The mixed religious and secular spirit is even more clear in St Peter's Square. Two Polish women, Kalinka and Roksana, arrived a week ahead of time. They kiss their beloved fellow countryman's drawn portrait, which they have just bought. They walk barefoot because their feet are hurting after the long pilgrimage. To quench their thirst, they drink from small bottles of water, sold at 2.50 euro each in the square.

Four or five big screens are set up around St Peter's Square, in the squares of San Giovanni (St John), Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) and San Paolo fuori le mura (St Paul Outside the walls). They endlessly screen videos of the 27-year papacy, with German, Spanish and English captions. The words "Totus tuus' appear everywhere. Meaning "completely yours', this was Wojtyla's motto dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Back in St Peter's Square, a bearded young man has been praying on his knees for over an hour. Children from Milan parishes lining up to visit the Basilica complain that they will have to leave Rome on Sunday. The boundary between the religious and secular worlds is unclear.

Nearby, there is a Catholic religious goods store. Wojtyla's face is everywhere, on precious coins, medals, and book covers. There are holy goods and some expensive items but a lot of junk too. John Paul II railed against the ills of capitalism. How would have he have reacted to the sight of a life-sized marble statue portraying himself, on sale for 8,000 euros? The vendor says she is not sure about how much her earnings will increase during the exceptional weekend of John Paul's beatification.

The owners of these shops are Jewish vendors called "urtisti", which literally means "those who bump into tourists'. They have been here since the 16th century. Making money from ‘selling Christ" was forbidden to Catholics, so the Church gave the licenses to Jewish people.

As Wojtyla and others before him had already tried, Pope Benedict XVI evicted the "urtisti" five years ago to save the decorum of the most holy Catholic square. The shopkeepers reacted angrily, and the German Pope was persuaded to abandon a potentially inflammatory showdown.

The vendors' tastes are often quite disputable. They sell dozens of statues, hundreds of paintings, and mosaics. John Paul II's statues are sold next to statues of David by Michelangelo. On some stalls his statue appears alongside statues portraying the football player Francesco Totti and the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

In the street outside Santa Maria in Transpontina, there is even a friar stopping the tourists and pushing them into the church. Relics inside, he insists, speaking of the vestments that Wojtyla used when he said mass. Any donations will go to charity. But again, the doubt about what is holy and what is secular persists.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - (Radio Nederland)

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