In the photograph, we see a clown. But this is not some baggy-panted, red-nosed wannabe Bozo. This is one of the exotic, nearly surreal creations from the modern age of circuses, from the Canadian circus Cirque du Soleil, or some other eighty-dollar-admission import.
But, still, a clown is a clown, something that almost by definition ought not be analyzed too much. On the right-hand side of the photograph is our late pontiff, John Paul II, whom some have already begun referring to as John Paul the Great.
But this is not the image of John Paul we will likely be seeing on holy cards and commemorative dinner plates available in the tabloid magazines. This is the Holy Father towards the end of a life made burdensome by Parkinson’s disease, with an overhanging upper lip and a hand that the clown must raise on her own to kiss.
Yes, you read that right. The clown, by definition something silly, colorful, irrepressibly expressive and intellectually lightweight, has knelt to kiss the hand of the pope with a look of solemnity and honor on her face. And it may be my own projection onto the scene, but the pope’s eyes seem to me to dance with joy for the clown, as they always did when the young were around him. Be it an armless man playing his guitar, three young Poles breakdancing for him, or, yes, a clown kneeling to kiss his hand, the pope’s joy in the young was always visible in the windows to his soul, even if the ability to move on his own or physically smile was no longer his.
Further than this, the image of an elegant clown kneeling to kiss the hand of the pope illustrates for me a point of greatest importance about the nature of the Church. G.K. Chesterton, a writer who has undergone a well-deserved renaissance in Catholic literary circles, noted that one of the appeals of the Church to him was her ability to embrace simultaneously very contradictory people and expressions of Christian faith. The men who physically fought for her in the crusades and the men who displayed immense meekness to obtain mystical union with her have both been honored and embraced as part of the Catholic heritage, without apology or any attempt to dilute their reality. “[Christianity] has kept [the two extremes] side by side like two strong colors,
red and white.... It has always had a healthy hatred of pink” (Orthodoxy, pp. 103-104). Despite being made up of sinners since her inception (including her first pope, who denied Christ three times), she has managed to hand down infallible moral teaching even when headed by sinners as black-hearted as Alexander VI.
And even though her visible face to the world is often one of ornate halls, majestic frescoes and towering basilicas, the true jewels in the Church’s crown are her saints, the greatest of whom lived lives much closer to that of a joyful clown out of the film Godspell than one of the faithful depicted in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Saint Francis of Assisi would ring the town bell and wake his neighbors, urging them to look at the beautiful moon God had given them that night. Saint Anthony of Padua preached to the fish when the people would not listen to him — and now spends much of his time helping me find my car keys. Saint Teresa of Avila summed up her view succinctly: “May God protect me from gloomy Saints!” — a quote I’ve taken to so much over time that I have added it as the tagline on many an email.
There may very likely be those who are offended by such a contrast as presented by the pope and the clown. The Church’s embracing of dichotomies has been a stumbling block to many throughout her history. There are others who have tried to use the concept of diversity as a back door to legitimizing sin within the Church. Yet in depicting a dazzling clown with a look of humility on her face, honoring a monochromatically clad pope who can smile only with his eyes, the photographer has captured an essential aspect of the nature and splendor of the Church: that all things, however colored or displayed, find their true, beautiful selves when pointed towards God, receive the grace of His sacraments, and accept the beauty and authority of His Church on earth.
- © Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
John McNichol lives in Vancouver WA with his wife Jeanna and six children. He has just completed his first novel about G.K. Chesterton.
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