Bergoglio’s Garden

The maudlin 1970 movie made from Erich Segal’s chart-busting novel Love Story passed into blessed memory. All that remains is Ali MacGraw’s line to Ryan O’Neal: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” On the list of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time, it is up there with Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Love Story’s one-liner became one of the most referenced chestnuts in post-Woodstock popular culture. Winding its way into song lyrics and subsequent movie dialogue, it was also one of most parodied. Even John Lennon took a swing at it: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Sodden with bathos, it remains the pitch-perfect epigram for a popular culture that dictates sentimentality as a you-gotta-have-it fashion accessory.

Unhappily, popular culture is inhaled by more than the daytime audience for Real Housewives and reruns of Downton Abbey. Fumes seep under chancery doors, even into papal apartments, including Pope Francis’ business-class one.

What brings this to mind is the spiraling catastrophe in the Middle East. Things have worsened in the wake of Francis’ imprudent kiss of the graffitied security fence and follow-up theatrics in the Vatican garden. The magic olive tree planted for the cameras by Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and the pope did not work. All that thaumaturgical shoveling could not break the spell of Palestinian hatred for Israel and for Jews.

Pope and olive treeThe life-sized M-75 rocket monument erected three months earlier in Gaza City to showcase Palestinian intentions toward “the Zionist entity” still stands. Within a week of Francis’ ceremony under the boxwoods, Hamas kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys in the West Bank. While Israelis mourned their sons, Palestinians gloated over their deaths. Fatah’s own Facebook page posted this:

Fatah’s Facebook pageAlso this three-fingered version of the victory sign. Its meaning unmistakable, Fatah coyly offered it as open to interpretation:

Three-fingered victory signRepercussions have been harrowing. The rogue retaliatory killing of an innocent Palestinian teen has been seized as justification for a renewed intifada. In brief, since the prayer fest, the rot has deepened and spread. You would think Francis might be embarrassed.

But no. Love means never having to say you are sorry. Especially if you never intended to have a measurable effect. It is apparently enough that the chimera of peace-and-love, like Shelley’s skylark (“bird thou never wert”), be hailed while it sings and soars above concrete realities on the ground.

On June 14, two days after the kidnapping, Fox News Latino published a curious article stating that the prayer summit was not aimed at restoring talks. It was “merely to serve as a symbol of mutual coexistence and respect.” The article quotes from Francis’ interview with Barcelona’s La Vanguardia in which he acknowledged that his idea was “completely novel” and that he had but one aim: “to open a window to the world.”

In other words, an impulse for novelty, that prized media commodity, eclipsed concern for efficacy. Put plainly, the unspoken object of so much ostentatious piety was to showcase Francis’ personality. Not for nothing is the term “a personality” our synonym for “a celebrity.” Idiosyncrasy—novelty—is the lifeblood of celebrity. It distinguishes.

The only casement opened that sunny day in the garden was one that gave a view onto the papal ego. Francis admitted that “ninety-nine percent of the Vatican said we shouldn’t do it.” Faced with a reluctant Vatican, the pope pulled rank. What he achieved was a window of opportunity for an emboldened Hamas.

What we need to ask is this: What has Francis to say—clearly and in public—now that the staging has gone, the blue shovels put away, and the runic tree, a sustainable prop, is back in the hands of Vatican gardeners who dropped it in the ground to begin with?

Francis is fond of symbolic gestures. But symbols have their consequences. Why else employ them? In this instance, they are all the more mischievous for exempting the symbol-shaper from responsibility for the way his signs are interpreted and used. To borrow a maxim from Flannery O’Connor, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.

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To what extent might Francis share, at some level, prevailing European hostility toward the Israeli state? It is feasible to wonder. For all the hype about him being the first Latino pope, he really is not. We still have an Italian pope, one raised in a white collar home in the most affluent and Europeanized city in South America. His father was an accountant, not a laborer. During Bergolio’s youth, Argentina was closer to Rome and Madrid than to any third-world Latin American country.

An in-law of mine was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now an American citizen, he has family—all ethnic Russians and Germans—still in Argentina. He writes me this:

“I don’t like the label “Latino”, it’s an American catch-all. Francis is just another first-generation European refugee in South America, a full-blooded Italian who grew up speaking Spanish. Just like other middle-class professionals in my parents’ generation he was born in an essentially prosperous country, with great public health and education, that was starkly different than its neighbors from Mexico on down. Alas, that is very much not the case now. Maybe the current generation in Argentina is better described as “Latino,” but not Francis, my parents, even me, or anyone else in the educated urban middle classes who is older than about 40.”

Media-induced romance, whether about the first Latino pope or the first black president, is a synthetic obscurant. It hides more than it reveals. And there are pitfalls in the dark.