As the 2018 papal visit to Ireland approaches, I’ve been thrown back, like many people, to memories of the last visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979.
I was a papal refusenik on that day. Not on principle exactly, even though I was a recently lapsed female Catholic in favour of contraception, divorce and abortion, but because I had just returned to Ireland – the day before, September 28 – from a year-long stint in Australia and a two-month overland journey from Sydney to Dublin.
Looking back, I realize I was suffering from culture shock. The worst kind of culture shock – culture shock in your own place. So deep was that shock that although I was a regular diary keeper in those days, when I trawled back through my 1979 archive there was no mention of the Pope’s visit – the last entry for September is on a train from Moscow to Ostend on the 24th and the next one wasn’t until Christmas Day.
But what I do remember is the fervour of the preparations for the Pope which took me completely by surprise. I had spent the previous six weeks travelling overland through Asia and Russia so though I was aware the Pope was coming to Ireland, I had no idea what it would actually mean.
The first visible sign of the visit was the large yellow and white papal banners lining the road to the airport like the set for some Cecil B deMille sex and sandals epic. I turned to my family and said you shouldn’t have bothered with the bunting – as a joke – but nobody laughed. The papal paraphernalia proliferated en route. Balloons and billboards and banners coupled with a general air of giddy distraction.
My own fatted calf ritual was short-lived. Within an hour of my return when the Aussie boomerangs and t-shirts had been produced, my “colour” and my new svelte figure courtesy of a bout of dysentery in Thailand had been admired, the family’s attention returned to its true focus – John Paul II.
I watched their feverish papal preparations and learned a new lingo – corrals, papal stools (sounds scatological), rain ponchos, popemobiles. Packed lunches were prepared as for an army on a forced march and then it was early to bed because they had a dawn start the next morning. I heard the house stirring at five, and turned over into sleep.
The family had asked me to join them but I couldn’t face it. It was like coming to a fireworks display when there’s only falling debris left in the sky. I wasn’t able to get in step with the general excitement. So I stayed at home in an empty house, on a deserted suburban Dublin street, and felt almost utterly alone in the world.
I wasn’t completely cut off; I listened to the radio – I was a journalist so my instinct was to be in on historic events. But, otherwise, I felt totally out of step with just about everything that was Irish that day. I was faced with the eternal question of returnees – what in God’s name am I doing here? (Apart from the obvious – my Australian visa had run out.) And another more visceral feeling – let me out!
Twenty years later, I saw a film that reminded me of that papal day. On the eve of the Millennium – December 1999 – in a tiny art deco cinema in Buenos Aires (that trip to Australia had lit an appetite for travel that is still aflame) an Italian film called “A Special Day” (1977) starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, directed by Ettore Scola, brought it all back.
Set on May 8, 1938 in Rome, the film follows a downtrodden mother and housewife, Antonietta, and a (secretly) gay radio broadcaster, Gabriele, who are the sole occupants of a Roman apartment building. Everyone in the neighbourhood, the entire city, it seems – including Antoinetta’s fascist husband Emanuele and their six children – have all gone to a mass parade to mark the visit of Adolf Hitler to the Fascist leader of Italy Benito Mussolini, leaving this unlikely pair alone in the deserted apartment block.
Because he is a homosexual and an anti-fascist, Gabriele has lost his job and is about to be deported to Sardinia. He chooses this day to commit suicide but is inadvertently interrupted in the act by Antoinetta, whose myna bird has escaped from its cage. The two – though poles apart politically and sexually – spend the day together and little by little learn to trust and confide in one another. By day’s end they have made love. (Well, it is the liquid-eyed Marcello Mastroianni, after all!)
Antoinetta’s family comes home triumphant from the parade and that night, Gabriele is arrested and taken away by police.
In the course of the film, both characters are revealed as being prisoners of the regime. Antoinetta is defined by her husband’s fascist loyalties – we learn that she’s aiming for a seventh child so that she’ll get a government bonus. Gabriele, on the other hand, is subject to a bachelor tax because he has no children. (The Mussolini regime equated homosexuality with depopulation.)
But what struck me most about the film was the atmosphere it created. It was that same strange eerie silence of September 29, 1979 in Dublin; the feeling that the world has utterly abandoned you, the very concrete sensation of being an outsider. In “A Special Day” the chants of the crowd and the triumphalist speechmaking can be heard, offstage – just like my transistor at low volume – but despite its hectoring presence, the large public event is reduced and eclipsed by what’s happening inside.
“The film’s understatement works to convey the central theme of a private realm at odds with the bombast of the fascist public sphere,” writes Dr Louis Bayman a film lecturer and enthusiast of director Ettore Scola’s work. “Loren’s housewife’s boredom gradually assumes the small tragedy of a woman condemned to domestic servitude by an official ideology of state-sanctioned male boorishness. Mastroianni’s suave, cultured companionship stands in contrast to the self-assurance of fascist military spectacle, continuously heard as the planes roar overhead while the crowds sing anthems, encouraged by a relentless loudspeaker address that penetrates the soundscape of the film.”
Antoinetta and Gabriele are stranded on an island in time, at a remove from the noisy clamour of daily life, and in that liminal space, find one another across normally insurmountable political and sexual barriers.
Sad to say, no Marcello Mastroianni character appeared on my “special day” in 1979. But I remember that day, too, as an island in time, where far from the madding crowd, I could view the public life of my own country at a distance and realise I didn’t want to be part of it.
Of course, over time you forget these vehement feelings of alienation, or at least you learn to live with them if you opt to stay – as I did.
I won’t be going to this papal celebration either, but I won’t feel the same sense of exclusion because so many of the social issues on which I differed from the Catholic church in 1979 – have now been resolved. That doesn’t mean I’ll be returning to the church any time soon. Like so many others, I abhor the fact of clerical sexual abuse and the abject failure and unwillingness of the institutional church to deal with the sexual predators in its midst.
But I still call myself a cultural Catholic. Though not as recently defined by historian Diarmuid Ferriter who called us “lazy hypocrites who treat Catholic sacraments as festive conveniences and do not engage in any meaningful debate about faith”.
There are many brands of cultural Catholics. I’m a Catholic in my formation; it’s absolutely indivisible from who I am, regardless of how much I disagree with the institutional church. So I don’t resent the endless media coverage of the papal visit, or even the fact of it. It’s a visit by a religious leader to address his faithful. Of which I am not one.
In the spirit of true liberalism, I say live and let live.
For another take on the Pope’s visit in 1979 listen to Evelyn Conlon’s short story, The Park, and hear an interview with her on The Stinging Fly podcast: https://stingingfly.org/podcast/evelyn-conlon-reads-the-park/