Footage of the Hitler Youth, St Peter's and the Pope holding his head in his hands carries a subliminal message

Not having a TV, I nipped round to my mother’s house the other evening to watch the six o’clock news on BBC One on her screen. As I had anticipated, there was an item on the forthcoming visit of the Holy Father. Full of soundbites rather than sound and fury, it showed old footage of Hitler Youth marching off in their shorts, shots of the interior of St Peter’s, the Pope with his face in his hands and a solemn commentary referring to the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy and the implied “homophobia” of Catholic teaching. For ignorant viewers – and most viewers are ignorant when it comes to Catholic matters – it gives a subliminal message that the Church is in crisis and the Pope, dogged by a “Nazi” past, in deep distress.

As someone who rarely watches TV it struck me more forcibly than it might those who watch regularly and who therefore might have become immunised against its effect, that the BBC news on television is a spectator sport; a visual drama designed to entertain and play upon the emotions. The background sound effects abet the process. It is all quite legitimate merely as cinema; as a supposed vehicle of accurate information, it is simply fiction.

It should not need repeating, but the Pope does not have a Nazi past; he was forcibly conscripted into the Hitler Youth during his teens. St Peter’s is not an emblem of papal grandeur and luxury; it is the patrimony of the Church, just as Buckingham Palace – apparently rather shabby these days – is the patrimony of the nation. When the Pope is filmed with his face in his hands he is most likely at prayer. The question of sexual abuse, as well as “hard” Catholic teachings, has already been ably dealt with in William Oddie’s recent blogs. If this is the way that the BBC is limbering up for the Pope’s visit, it does not bode well – but I shall try to keep an open mind as media coverage unfolds.

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To add to the jollity the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has produced a sheet entitled “Some Helpful Hints: terms for Catholic events”. Clearly designed to enlighten all those ignorant viewers who might be confused by the strange words used during the commentary accompanying the Holy Father, it explains that “congregation” means “audience” or “crowd”; “liturgy” or “Mass” means “event” or even “show” or “gig”; liturgists are “performers” or “artists”; the word “altar” means “table”; the “sanctuary” is a “stage”; and the “sacristy” is “backstage”.

Has the Bishops’ Conference decided to take Shakespeare’s speech about all the world being a stage a little too literally? No wonder that television has turned into mass entertainment when the most serious action in the whole of human history is described by believers as the equivalent of a “gig”.

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