The initial response to the election of Cardinal Bergoglio was positive – mainly because his name was not Ratzinger.
But it was inevitable (because the pope is a Catholic) that the honeymoon wouldn’t last long. The Dirty War thing having failed to stick, a lacuna remained to be filled.
Ah! Pope Francis is “obsessed” with the devil. So asserted innumerable media reports following an incident in St Peter’s Square in Rome last Sunday afternoon.
The AP report in this newspaper stated that the pope “may” have performed an exorcism on a sick man: “The man heaved deeply a half-dozen times, convulsed and shook, and then slumped in his wheelchair as the pontiff prayed over him.”
“Fuelling the speculation,” we were told, was Pope Francis’s “well-known obsession with the devil – a frequent subject of his homilies.” A report in the Sun employed similar phrases: “The pontiff then grips the top of the subject’s head firmly and is seen pushing him down into his wheelchair. As this is happening Francis recites an intense prayer, and the boy’s mouth drops wide open and he exhales sharply. Francis’s usual smile then returns and he continues with the traditional and more gentle Sunday greetings for sick or disabled visitors to St Peter’s.”
Excitement and expectation
As this episode was taking place, I was standing 20 yards away on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. I saw no exorcism, because nothing of the kind occurred. My girlfriend had been videoing the pope’s progress through the crowd. In her recording, the soon-to-be alleged beneficiary of the exorcism can be seen in the minutes beforehand, eagerly watching the pope’s progress along the line of disabled pilgrims. If asked whether I thought the young man was possessed by anything, I would hazard excitement and expectation.
The “exorcism” lasted 10 seconds. When Pope Francis arrived, he immediately rested his left hand on the young man’s head and spoke with a priest standing behind the wheelchair.
The young man kissed the pope’s ring, suggesting that the devil was not in total control.
The priest, Fr Juan Rivas, later wrote about the episode on his Facebook page, saying that there had been no exorcism.
“Since no one heard what he said,” Fr Rivas stated, “including me who was right there, you can say he did a prayer for liberation but nothing more.”
(A prayer for liberation is a standard prayer to expel evil spirits, which can include jealousy, fear, anger and lust.)
The pope behaved no differently while with the young man than he had with the two dozen other disabled people to whom he spoke that afternoon. After eight or nine seconds, he placed his right hand on the man’s head and prayed for a further 10 seconds.
The young man did not “heave”, “shake” or “slump”. He sat back in his wheelchair, possibly overcome by emotion, as frequently happens when people meet a pope. He may have had some kind of brief seizure, although it is clear in the final instants of the encounter that he was in no way distressed or agitated.
When the pope took his hands away, the man could be seen surveying Francis with the same curious intensity as 20 seconds before.
One especially intriguing aspect of the episode is the pseudo-journalistic language and devices employed to give legs to a limbless “story”.
We were told that the “TV station of the bishops’ conference” had “surveyed” exorcists, who “agreed” that the pope “either performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from the devil”.
By the time the director of TV2000, the television of the Italian bishops’ conference, went public next day, the world’s media had moved on.
“I don’t want to attribute to [the pope] a gesture that he didn’t intend to perform,” said the director of the station, Dino Boffo.
Media people generally tend to become incandescent at suggestions that they might be in some business other than relaying “the news”.
Still, the “news” from St Peter’s Square at the weekend would have had to do not with the devil but the enormous celebration of the Christian faith that took place there, unreported by any Irish media outlet.
On both Saturday and Sunday, 200,000 people turned up to see and listen to Pope Francis.
I had the honour to be one of two people chosen to give a public witness before the pope, who afterwards spoke in the warmest terms to the people, who listened with deep attention.
Catholics may buy newspapers, but this, it seems, does not entitle them to read about things that matter to them.
Instead, they must endure an – at best – persistent condescending crypto-satire that seeks to demean and trivialise their faith while leeching off the majesty of their faith as a source of material.
Whatever about post-Christian, we are certainly living in a post-journalism age.