Reflection: the shuffling people of God

 We had initially lost heart when already at 4pm on Monday after John Paul's death the queues to view the body were 25 across and extending well beyond the Via della Conciliatione. This was to begin viewing the body at 9pm that night. Later, we learned there would be no tickets for the funeral Mass. With the expected two - four million pilgrims, we would have no chance even of getting into St. Peter's Square. We realised that for us the encounter with his death had already been. It seems always to be so. You only understand after the event, that what has already been was in fact your main event. For us, that first moment of participation was the announcement of his death. We had just arrived in Rome that evening, gone to eat a pizza, and then gone to St Peters, feeling sure that his death was still some days off. As we crossed the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, with our robed Dominican chaplain, we were stopped by a friendly face, a brother Dominican who told us he had just died as they were saying the Sorrowful Mysteries in the square. His own last word was "Amen" at the end of his last Mass. We entered St Peters beneath the words "I am the resurrection and the life", then from the colonnades joining in the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, and gazing up at the window of his private chamber, with so many others, in quiet prayer. But that was enough. We later learned that the many young who had been camped in a long vigil in the square with their candles had been the key players for John Paul. It is said he had looked out to say: "I was waiting for you. And you have come. Thank you." As we came away, it happened that I was interviewed by one of the many TV teams, all desperate to fill the empty air-time with impressions, and had to say what it had meant to me. I tried to say that it was all contained in the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. This was a moment of transitions at many different levels: Christ's passing to His Father in the prayer of the people, John Paul's passing this very night into his true life with the Good Lord, each of our own passings, the passing of the Church into a new age with a new Pope. The other pieces only came together slowly. We then saw the body through the eyes of a Benedictine friend who had been waved in from the foot of the stairs. He had been deeply touched by what he saw, "a face at peace, but of a man who had suffered". That face was within a day on the front pages of the world with whatever copy fills front pages. But for the Benedictine the key point was this: "that face that has been with me at the all key points of my own journey". Just so. I too remember that clear strong voice in the early encyclicals that broke through my own apathy, like this deeply resonating bell that tolls across the square through the Rosary. Clear and strong, striking some resonant note deep in my own thorax. Was it tolling of its own accord, as the bells of Rome had done at the passing of St. Phillip Neri? That clear strong voice that called out to his brother Poles in words that still make my hair stand and bring moisture to my eyes: "Nie bojcie sie! Ja zwycierzilem nad swiatem!" "Don't be afraid! I have conquered th world!" But it was not the content, but the piercing strength of his intonation that cut through to somewhere that responded: "Tak jest!". But is there something that the crowds were keeping us from on a vast occasion such as this? Is there some central place where the "real" events are happening, some place that we can penetrate if only we have the connections and the tickets? There is a kind of peer pressure that seems to suggest this, a false construction that emerges from the swirling press officers, and infects the religious houses too. But that is only a kind of truth, what appears on the television and in the papers, but it is not the reality. We were in the Basilica, and one of the early seemingly impenetrable crowds had formed for the 5pm vespers on the day after his death. These tiny gatherings were nothing compared with the crowds that were to build up in the following days. We managed finally to elbow our way through to the last row of nuns and to look over their shoulders to sing the Office of Vespers, only to understand that at the centre, even on so important a day as this, the basic reality is the same as any Vespers in any church on any day. There is no centre, no secret place. Even though the Conclave will have an important piece of work to do, it is just one of the Church's jobs that need to be done. It is the sheer scale of the event as it began to unfold that makes this so clear. The heads of state were all coming, and the millions had made their minds that they would come and say farewell. They would come, not to the spectacle, but each a personal act of pilgrimage, and more, an act of thanks, an act of friendship. We really only began to grasp this scale when we joined the queue to view the body. Various colleagues and dignitaries had managed special arrangements, but we determined to go at 4am, because we had heard that some seminarians had managed to get through in just two hours. But for us on the next day, 4am was only the beginning of a journey that would take us 13 hours. And somehow this very thing, this waiting in lines 30 abreast, row upon row, all densely packed, moving a few paces at a time, edging forward, then stopping for 10 minutes or 40 minutes at a time, and then edging forward again, elbowing each other, at too close quarters for too long, for 10 hours before finally reaching the steps of the basilica, this simple thing proved to be our real pilgrimage. Why? Because this is where to your surprise you suddenly discover something about yourself in the actual Church. Here we are, the shuffling people of God, to use Fr Tony Philpot's phrase after the event. We don't normally understand that we are part of something that has a real existence at this scale. The young who have attended the World Youth Days, several million at a time, have already got the point. But for a grumpy old individualist, that perspective comes as something of a shock. I too had been waiting, through draughty uninspiring liturgies, and I didn't know this sort of thing existed. And yet it truly exists at this scale, it has a tangible being at this scale. It is really not about the Cardinals, or the heads of state, although they all have their own parts to play in the drama. It has more to do with this whole cross section of humanity that you discover yourself to be part of, the many nuns, the priests, even a few bishops, but much more the many ordinary folk, and above all the young, who outnumbered all the oldies of whatever rank by a factor of four to one. And this is one of the deep mysteries of the Church, that it has this real tangible existence at many different scales simultaneously. It is perhaps best articulated as a fractal, a Mandelbrott set. These were the data sets which produced those strange organic mathematical images of the 80's. Their secret is that at any level of detail, the same order exists. You can look at some macro level and find a certain pattern. You can zoom in on a detail, and to your surprise find exactly the same pattern, and again the same if you zoom in again, and yet again, and so on without end. The essence of these systems is in what is called the "parametrisation". There are a few key parameters and a rule (set of equations) that determine how these parameters are to be used. They determine the entire complex architecture. The final vast form is simply an instance of a few key numbers and relationships. These for us are the Keys, the Word, the fundamental guiding principle that informs the whole structure at every scaling and every level. The strange thing, as the world's heads of state gather, is that the order which occurs at that level, when John Paul would once admonish a visiting dignitary on the handling of his country, is no different from a priest or spiritual director admonishing a parishioner on the handling of their own sphere of responsibility: are you considering the greater good here, or only your own? And just as a visiting dignitary might go away chastened and think again of the larger picture of struggling humanity from within those richly painted galleries of the Vatican, any parishioner too might go away chastened, and perhaps pray for guidance to find a way forward in some difficult task. But the first grand Mass that will be said by the new Pope will be no different in its theological essence from the most ordinary Mass which a struggling priest celebrates with three forlorn parishioners. There is no real centre, only Christ, who is all and in all, and you find traces of Him and of His order, at every level of detail. And this is what is mysterious and miraculous. It is only the press and the gossip that lead you to think that you are outside some inner core reality that will only occur in the Conclaves and in the back seats of the Vatican limousines. There is an element, and a very necessary and graced element, of the total picture that will occur at that level. But unless it is part of the same fundamental fractal scaling law, the law of Christ, then it is simply an artificiality daubed onto the picture, but it does not arise from the picture. The secret codes of the Vatican, the secret scaling was actually articulated by John Paul in his first Encyclical "Redemptor Hominis" long before the Da Vinci Code. The critical scaling parameter that determines the whole form of the Church is the heart of man. It is there, in the atomic rules that govern each individual, that the whole architecture of the Church resides. Therefore, there is no inner core reality in the worldly sense at all, only Christ in all and through all, and always and in everything Christ. "Great men are an illusion. They have no weight on the scales." If it does not have within it the proportions that come from the scaling fractal that gave rise to the structure in the first place, then it is not part of the image. And yet, having said all that, there was something important about finally making it to his body. I just wanted to stay there and pray, but got moved on, to make way for so many others. It is very hard to put into words, and will stay with me forever. But as we came back home, I knew that for us, we had made our pilgrimage, we had touched something that everyone there has understood instinctively. We had come to say thank you, also as friends, just that dumb being there. We had touched John Paul, and through him we had touched Christ, even in the figure of this frail old man. We have come away with a lightness of spirit and a joy. We were graced to have been there.

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