Projecting Religion

What projection
does the
Pope reflect
back to
us about
ourselves?

A report from Rome this morning on NPR presented an interesting discussion of the reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II.

What caught my attention was a statement that he filled public squares, but not churches. The point was that he drew huge crowds into open spaces but his religious teachings were rejected by many of the same people who came to celebrate him.

I view this less as criticism of the Pope than as a modern paradox of belief. We celebrate the ideal and project into the celebrity whatever it is we hope for, then we go about our own lives doing what matters to us in our day-to-day existence.

I’m reminded of what my friend Dennis Benson said about rock stars many years ago. Dennis said fans project their own expectations and hopes onto the rock stars. The performers, knowing this, act out on stage those expectations. But neither the fans nor the performers are really what is acted out. There is a great deal of theatrics in these “acts.”

One of the wisest performers to express this is Dolly Parton who has said many times that women who come to her concerts are saying to themselves that she’s just like them. With a bit of luck or some other intervention of fate, they could be up on stage getting the attention and acclaim. She embodies their projection.

I’m not comparing the Pope to a rock stars. Nor am I implying that he enacted hollow theatrics. He did quite the opposite. He was committed to values and principles that he lived out and that were important in changing attitudes in this world. So, I’m not diminishing the great contribution he made.

But as the Pope is celebrated in death, the number of worshippers declines across Europe and Roman Catholics live by values that are contrary to the teachings of the church, as in the practice of birth control, to name only one example. This raises a question of what exactly people are projecting onto this Pope.

That he was able to generate this much respect and acclaim is remarkable. He captivated the imagination. But what is it that we imagine? There is much more here to be mined. What projection does the Pope reflect back to us about ourselves?

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