Good P.R.

Father John Hunwicke has an interesting piece at his blog. As usual, you should read it in full. However, one point in the post struck us. Father Hunwicke suggests that the progenitor of the modern publicity cult of the papacy was—wait for it—Pius XII:

Nor is a world-wide personality cult of the Roman Pontiff required by Catholic Dogma. Such a cult might, indeed, be a corruption of the Petrine Office, and indicate too much influence within the Church of the modern, Media-driven cult of the ‘celebrity’, so characteristic of our global village. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the first glimmerings we had of this cult were during the 1930s, the decade of the Nuremburg rallies, the decade also when Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII, but then Secretary of State) enjoyed displaying his charisma by going on foreign, even world-wide, tours and became known as il vice-Papa, il Cardinale volante. I wonder if these circuses have disadvantages as well as advantages. Papa Ratzinger obviously loathed doing them, but went through it all out of a sense of duty: I wonder how much the strain sapped his strength. Even Madonna seems to do them less.

It was, moreover, Papa Pacelli who appears to have started the silly game of having babies handed up to him while swaying along in his Gestatorial Chair (I would be interested if anybody could falsify this tentative suggestion by finding videoclips of popes earlier than him indulging in this insanitary game … so unhealthy, isn’t it? … you never know what diseases these poor children might pick up from a pope … after all, in the reception at the airport, the Sovereign Pontiff will quite possibly have shaken hands with some extremely unsavoury politicians … I wouldn’t have wanted some pope putting his hands anywhere near one of my children or grandchildren after he had been shaking hands with … er … um … )

This adds a different gloss to the perception of dear Papa Pacelli as a serious, even severe, man with a strong mystical streak. (We think this perception may have been fostered by Pius’s physical appearance—even if he had been fond of loud laughter, good food, and the occasional glass or two of vino at dinner, which he may well have been [we don’t know], he would have looked like a mystic shopping for a new hair shirt.)

But, as any Gilbert and Sullivan fan will tell you, things are seldom what they seem. Did you know that Cardinal Frings, the first Council father to speak on the schema of the constitution De Sacra Liturgia, praised the schema as a testament to Pius XII? (Acta Synodalia I.1.309.) Indeed, it was Pius’s 1955 reforms of Holy Week and the Breviary that mark the beginning of the phase of action that brought us the transitional 1960/62 books and, finally, the Novus Ordo Missae and the Liturgia Horarum. Indeed, Pius had brought an ambitious young expert—name of Bugnini—into the mix in 1948, by appointing him secretary of the commission established to study liturgical reform.

So, while we confess that we had put the rise of the unique public gestures of the Roman Pontiff somewhat later, we are not that surprised by Father Hunwicke’s argument that good Pope Pius was the man who invented—or sparked the invention of—the public perception of the modern papacy.