The Last Papal Picture Show

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

During my first year of college, I had a pope fixation. I never went to church in those days, and I was not yet a religion major, so the reasons behind my preoccupation were neither pious nor academic. There was just an unnamable something that drew me to the image of the man. When my dormitory roommate taped to one of our shared cinderblock walls an enormous poster of a woman in a bikini and roller blades, I countered with the biggest picture I could find of John Paul II in his prime. Dressed in a snow white soutane, his face tan with travel, the new, young pope—”God’s athlete,” he was called back then—stood above St. Peter’s Square with his arms outstretched in blessing. I hung the photograph not as moral rebuke of my roommate’s decorative taste but as simple contrast—if he insisted on being boorish in one direction, I would answer equally in the other.

When my roommate put up a second poster in response—different woman, same outfit; this time on the ceiling above his bed—I complained that people could see his rollerblading ladies through the window.

“It just makes us look stupid,” I told him, “like dumb frat guys.”

“Well, people can see the pope, too,” he said. “How does that make us look?”

Point taken, but I didn’t care. In our 10 x 10 room, we lived by a kind of mutual aesthetic destruction.

I had brought with me from my parents’ house a coffee table book featuring commemorative photographs of John Paul II’s numerous visits to the United States. It was a gorgeous book, full of bright colors and striking images, showing the pope as he made a circuit through the vastness of American Catholic culture. I no longer have it, but I remember almost every page: Here the pope waves as he descends to an airport’s tarmac in Washington; here he watches in a Los Angeles stadium as an armless guitar player strums a hymn with his toes; here he wears a sombrero somewhere in the southwest.

I recall the images as if I’d witnessed the scenes they depicted firsthand, because, in a way, I had. During the pope’s first U.S. tour, when I was five years old, my mother had wrapped my brother, sister, and me in rain gear, and taken us to watch the papal entourage drive by in Boston. That was 1979, before the assassination attempt, so when John Paul II went by it was not in the white bulletproof vehicle today known as the popemobile but in a long limo with a convertible roof in the back. Because of the spitting drizzle that day (my mother warned us to keep our hoods on or we’d catch “pope colds”), God’s athlete rode inside through streets crowded five deep on the sidewalks. As the police escort approached, I remember being disappointed to realize that the big black car was all I would see of him. In the pope I had imagined finding some kind of surrogate grandfather—both of mine had died before I was born. I knew that my parents, a non-practicing priest and a former nun, were children of the church, and I knew the man we were waiting to see was the father of it. Such simple five-year-old’s logic had only increased my anticipation. And then a car like a hearse rolled by.

So the coffee table book I brought to college with me had some sentimental value. That was probably why I’d packed it in the first place. Then, drawn again by that nameless something, I cut it to pieces. The images in the book were just too good to leave between the covers. Borrowing an exact-o-knife from my graphic-artist friend, I carved out picture after picture of John Paul II. I gave out some as kitschy gifts; posted others randomly around campus, JP2 has a posse, Andre-the-Giant style; and taped the best of the lot to my dorm room door (roommate be damned). Late at night I would often hear the drunken whispers of others who lived on our floor. “Is this guy serious?”

I never tried to explain—hey, it’s just a joke, don’t get the wrong idea—because the more time I spent thinking about the pope’s image, the less certain I was what it meant. Its meaning, in fact, was changing. Or maybe I was just growing up.

That trip to the Boston pope parade aside, I’d been raised in a dissident Catholic household. My father has spent his life trying to bring changes to the church (specifically the end of the celibacy requirement for priests; more generally, the reform of the church’s medieval approach to all questions of sexuality), which John Paul II has spent a large part of his papacy opposing. For obvious reasons, the Vatican has much invested in the notion of an eternal, unchanging church. Which perhaps is why, at the home-liturgies my parents and their like-minded friends held in our dining room, I always heard John Paul II referred to as the “current pope.” He was never mentioned without that qualifying “current”– reformist shorthand for “not the first, not the last.” To keep the faith in my family was to be patient and certain that the faith could change; that new possibility, and a new pope, would one day come.

And yet when I left home, it was primarily his image that lingered in my religious consciousness. In contrast to my parents’ intimate but (so far) ineffectual vision of the faith, here was a world-straddling Catholicism—nothing new, of course, but as an ambitious young man hoping to leave behind a context in which idealism and disappointment were two names for the same thing, it was a genuine revelation to see in the pope a man for whom the cost of following his vocation had not been a life of endless frustration.

With the most recent images of John Paul II, however, I wonder if my understanding of that revelation was premature. In what may prove his last appearance, the pope stood at the window of his Vatican apartment with a microphone before him. Just as he did in the photograph I hung in my dorm room a dozen years ago, he looked down on an adoring throng gathered in St. Peter’s Square. This time, though, when it became obvious he could not speak, the microphone was pulled away, and the pope stood alone in the window. Whether or not it was intended as such, it was a final look in both directions.

As I write it is unclear whether or not the pope is still alive. This afternoon CNN announced he had died; this evening he is merely “deteriorating.” He is in the gray area—anthropologists of religion might call it a liminal time—that is the ground of faith, as are all those waiting and praying for him.

From its earliest days, Christianity has positioned itself on the fault line between life and death. In fact, it could be said that it was from this tomb, this womb, that the faith was born. The ubiquity of the cross has obscured one of its most powerful meanings: That, like the mute pope in his window, we stand always at the intersection of the horizontal world in which we live, and the vertical unknown that is to come.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.