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)

all rights reserved ©Worldcrunch - in partnership with La Stampa

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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