Curtain Raiser

The Man in the White Cloth, Colltalers

The stupid misspelling of Jesus’s name, which forced the Vatican to recall thousands of medals celebrating Pope Francis’ term as the new head of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, brings to mind that old saying, as ancient as the church itself: not everything that shines…
For even though the incident itself has little to do with the misguided feeling, fueled by an ailing church hierarchy, that suddenly Catholicism is again relevant, it serves as a fit stop sign to all the hoopla about a supposedly progressive bent shown by the first Latin American pope in history.
Yes, his coy, but apparently spontaneous, declarations in support for gays, women in service, even atheists, who healthily remain skeptical, as well as criticism of the Vatican’s unchecked wealth, and its present role in relation to world affairs, are indeed refreshing.
Stories have circulated about his vowed personal stoicism, refusal to live in ostentatious luxury, or, god forbid (say the insurers) taking John Paul II’s favorite ride, all traits that do represent a contrasting change compared to his two previous predecessors. Who would be against that?
We can’t say we hate to thrown some iced, unholy water on top of so much adoration fervor. But we must say, it all sounds nauseatingly hollow.
For starters, why a ‘commemorative coin’ at the beginning of anyone’s term? Sure, it’s tradition, but so what? It’s obviously premature, as shown by the Nobel Peace Award granted to President Obama while he was still learning the controls of the Nuclear Briefcase. The rest has been sad history.
It’s been noted that there’s a culture of rewarding effort foremost, and then, maybe, achievement, and even if that’s not a black and white issue, there’s one point that people, even and specially young little leaguers, have to lose, and feel bitter about it, just like everyone else learns about life.
Absolutely, much of what compounds success is simply showing up, as one’d say to those considering pressing the snooze button one more time. But we don’t, should not get rewarded for doing the expected, the correct, the right thing. Whatever happened to challenge oneself and reach to our best?
If we don’t know how bad it feels to lose, and despite the hurt, act with grace to try it again, how are we supposed to congratulate the winner who just beat us? And believe us, many have not just beat us, but dragged us through the mud and made us wallow in our grief, and… but we digress.
The point is, a shake of hands suffices in most cases, no need for trophies. Back to our man Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who willingly applied to the position of being the ‘vicar of god’ on earth, he’s not above criticism, and no one can say they know him after just a few months ‘in office.’
After all, he presided over the Argentinian church during the ‘dirty war,’ when the military dictator juntas, and its assortment of criminal generals, went after their political opponents with a salvage zeal equal only to, well, other South American country rulers during the same time.
Clearly, he skillfully avoided any confrontation with them, despite being in a position of power himself. And, except for a few documented cases of personal intervention in favor of dissidents being chased after by death squads, as a political leader, he pretty much kept it to himself.
But our annoyance with all this cult of Francis’s ‘style,’ as opposed to Joseph Ratzinger’s flashy ‘Imelda Marcos’ collection of red shoes, goes beyond the man now wearing white skirts to focus on what his employer, the ‘company’ (at one point even called ‘of Jesus’) has represented over the years.
Never mind early Christians and a religion that may or may not have been a Roman concoction. Let’s jump to South America, 15 centuries after, shall we? In the early years of the Discovery Era, Portugal and Spain were, even if briefly historically speaking, the two super powers of the day.
Both crowns were sponsored and given a mandate by the church to turn the new-found lands an extension of its domain. While nations were staking political claims in the worlds they’d discover, to the Vatican it didn’t matter who’d win the wars of conquest, as long as the winner carried a cross.
Those wars came to a head at the southern cone of South America, with Spain dominating the Pacific coast and Portugal, the Atlantic. In the middle, rich soil, fertile ground, and free labor, were a given, and the church’s own armies of missionaries were already ‘working the crowds.’
There were many socio-experiments in the Vatican’s attempt to extend its doctrine to the ‘salvages,’ but none as remarkable and relatively poorly understood as what came to be known as The Missions, the culmination of two centuries of Jesuit efforts to colonize native South-Americans.
Between late 1500s and the early 18th century, they coalesced into a highly organized village settlement complex, covering an area several hundred miles wide, where natives followed an odd combo of Catholicism and their own belief system, could read, and even play orchestra instruments.
Plus, they became economically successful, with some of their goods trading at the Buenos Aires exchange, and modestly self-sufficient militarily, with a militia created to fend off slave traders’ attacks. A true utopia that some say may have inspired Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.
Their demise was a confluence of economical disputes, as the Jesuit Reductions, as they were known, become a bit too successful for their own good, and inner fracturing within the Catholic church. The order was officially expelled from the two countries’ worldwide colonies in 1767.
But to the reductions, the final straw was both a tighter collaboration between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, eager to cash in the region’s now profitable trade, and their secret agreement splitting their domains at the cone, the missions smacked right in the middle of it.
The result, the Guarany War, (which to be sure, had many other components to it too) was one of the worst genocides of native peoples of South America in its already bloody history, as arch-and-bow-armed tribes were massacred by the firepower of an entire army of trained soldiers.
The Jesuits, who had tamed and protected the natives, were by then nowhere to be found, and the Vatican, presided by another Pope Benedict, stood by while the settlements were ransacked, burned and destroyed. Their ruins remain standing, though their history has been all but forgotten.
There were other instances when the Vatican stood by while horrors and autocratic carnage were visiting and ravaging their flock. It happened when Nazis roamed and terrorized Europe in WWII, and in Brazil in the 1960s, when Theology of Liberation was crushed by the military dictatorship.
That, by the way, was a political movement that, very much likely Bergoglio’s own statements these days, attempted to realign the church to its original poverty and social justice vows, by actively fighting tyranny. Curiously, during the 1960s, Bergoglio missed completely the movement.
Thus, there has to be much more than words for the new pope’s charms to impress Colltales. There are signs, though, than an internal backlash has already started. A succession of commentary both by Vatican officials and its press corps have began deconstructing his most far-out statements.
We’re not surprised. Time will tell, of course, but even if it turns out that the Argentine is a nice chap, after all, so what? What changes? It wouldn’t even be in synch to what the church aims at, which is to crush its competition. And its competition doesn’t get our vote either, none of them.
Unless, it’s almost needless to say, he goes to Washington, excommunicates the Republicans hijacking the government, feeds a few other congressmen to wild beasts, and gives away the Vatican’s earthly possessions to charity, effective immediately. It won’t happen. Have a great one. WC

CURTAIN RAISERS

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