Apart from the Sistine Chapel, the other place the Vatican wouldn't let me photograph last week was the crypt containing the tombs of a fair number of popes. Fair enough, I suppose, but I went to have a look anyway: I wanted to make sure that John Paul II really is dead.
I'll make no bones about it (no pun intended), there was no love lost between me and Pope John Paul II. Well, there was certainly no love lost on my behalf; I don't know how the late pontiff felt about me. I don't have much time for religious leaders as a whole, but, in JPII's case, it was the man himself, not just the office, that I disliked. I disliked him immensely—primarily for his stance on contraception, which placed religious dogma before the physical well-being of his flock, the nasty, dangerous little man.
Since JPII's death, they've been trying to make out that he was some kind of saint—literally, in this case. As I reported two years ago, the Roman Catholic Church is looking for evidence "in favour or against" the late Pope John Paul II's suitability to be a saint. They're not talking about scientific evidence, you understand. What they're looking for is anecdotal evidence that JPII should have the letters S-T added to the front of his name. Being religious types, the sort of anecdotal evidence they have in mind is of the non-testable, miraculous kind: pray to JPII, witness a miracle, and Bob's your uncle (and John Paul's your saint). Easy-peasy!
All of which explains (I think) why, as I filed past JPII's tomb (muttering the words you evil, little bastard under my breath—I couldn't help myself), there were about a dozen or so of the faithful in a little roped off area, on their knees, praying at the slab of marble like there was no tomorrow. I felt sorry for them, I really did. These poor people seemed to be nice, ordinary members of the public, who genuinely believed that praying at a piece of rock might actually achieve something. You could see it in their eyes: they were genuinely touched—in both senses of the word. How did it get to this?
Interestingly, a few tombs along, the faithful praying at the tomb of St Peter (est. 1950)—that's Peter the rock (geddit? Nice one Jesus!) upon which the Roman Catholic Church was literally built, the patron saint of cobblers (no, really: the last shall be first, and all that), and, if the Bible is to be believed, one of Jesus's actual apostles—were conspicuous by their absence. Mind you, I suppose he's already got his sainthood.
Shaking my head in literal disbelief, I crept out of the crypt and returned to St Peter's Basilica to take some more photographs.
And then something really strange happened: I pushed the little button on the side of my camera which makes the flash pop up, took a photo of a statue of some woman carrying a book, and pushed the flash back down again. "What's so strange about that?" I hear you ask. Well, for about a month now, the flash on my camera has had a fault: it has been popping up OK, and the flash still works, but there has been something wrong with the mechanism which has been preventing it from popping down again unless I jiggle about with the catch. Only this time I didn't need to do the jiggle—and my camera has been working just fine ever since.
Could a John-Paul-II-hating atheist have been the first to witness one of his miracles? Could the paparazzi's favourite pope end up becoming the patron saint of flash photography? I'll leave the Roman Catholic Church to decide.
But, if they want to try to repeat this minor miracle, the prayer that seemed to work for me is you evil, little bastard.
No sooner have I finished writing the above than I spot the following headline in today's Guardian (the butler reads it): Miracle nun: 'I wrote John Paul II's name and I was cured'.