Papal awkwardness, clumsy religious respect - Daniel Silliman

Recalling an awkward church situation from an ungainly period, my sister says, "I didn't know what to do with my hands."

I think that sums up this county's response to the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI: Awkward and gawky, attempting to be respectful and be adult, and somehow still sounding silly.

After the pope held a service for 41,000 and preached a sermon, the television microphones caught President George Bush leaning over to the head of the Roman Catholic Church and saying "Thank you, your holiness. Awesome speech."

Bush was made fun of, for the line, but I think the Methodist president, a man who says his life was turned around by Jesus, was trying to be respectful. He looked like he was trying to properly respond to the religious authority, the depth of devotion, and the sense of serious tradition, but didn't know how.

Politically, the comment was stupid, and the president's political opponents pounced. The jovial, "frat boy," demeanor fit an old, old critique of Bush and, if you think about it, a critique of this country, but I don't think the president was alone in not knowing how to treat the pope.

The cable news networks responded to the visit with feverish focus and ended up looking like country kids come to the city: Mouths gapping, eyes bugging, lost and about to be mugged. One network kept the live cameras focused on a set of rolling stairs sitting next to an empty runway, and another bounced around the inside of a plane, catching the bumpy ride in the reporter's section as if it were important.

Sometimes, during the coverage, commentators tried to treat him like he was a celebrity, responding like they would respond if an actress exposed herself. Other times, during the coverage, commentators tried to take it all politically, treating the pope like he was an old senator who might make a policy statement.

I don't know how individual Catholics and non-Catholics in Washington D.C., and New York City responded, but publicly, as represented by the American television coverage and the president, this country just didn't know what to do with its hands.

None of it was intentionally disrespectful. It was just awkward.

A papal visit is a formal situation we weren't prepared for and so we're mentally stumbling and coming up with nothing but the reminder that you should address the pope as, "your holiness." But then what do you say? "Awesome speech."

This can be an anti-Catholic country. Many of the anti-immigrant feelings of a former age were phrased as open disgust for the church of Rome. The Ku Klux Klan was opposed to the "papists," considering them as bad as black people and Northerners. One of my great-grandmothers, a Baptist, referred to the tail on the Thanksgiving turkey as "the pope's nose," expressing the sort of semi-racist, anti-papal sentiment that was common. We didn't see any of that, really, with this visit from Benedict XVI.

We want to be devout. We want to be respectful. We want to somehow accept and appreciate the mysteries of these traditions, the devotions of these religious rites, the spiritual stance of the man many believe can speak for God, but we don't know how.

We're like a religious country that doesn't know what to do with religion. Like someone at a funeral who hasn't been to church since childhood, we try to fit ourselves into half-remembered poses. We're left, like my sister in that teenage situation, flustered and feeling clumsy.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.