The news that Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace were among the million people (including 22 ‘world leaders’) who thronged St Peter’s Square for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II lends a piquant note to what was already a gothic occasion. Their presence was not, in itself, surprising: Mugabe tends to remember he is a Catholic whenever it is convenient – as in the case of his marriage to Grace, celebrated in a Catholic high mass in Harare, although they had by then already had two children. More recently, however, the main point has been to evade the EU’s targeted sanctions and thus provide Grace (widely known as ‘Dis-Grace’) with opportunities for her extravagant shopping trips. The Mugabes were in Rome in 2005 for John Paul II’s funeral, and again in 2008 and 2009 for UN food conferences – they get a free pass from the Vatican and from the UN, of which Zimbabwe is still a member.
The word ‘gothic’ seems unavoidable. It’s not just that John Paul II has been dead for only six years, but that for the occasion his coffin was exhumed and placed on the altar, an almost Dracula-like touch. Then there’s the matter of the child sex abuse scandals, and how far he was involved in covering them up. However, what counts with Holy Mother Church is that Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and her fellow nuns prayed to the late pope for his intercession with God in order to rid her of Parkinson’s disease – and it worked. This is a certified miracle so JP II qualifies for beatification. In order for him to qualify for sainthood there has to be at least one more certified miracle and a great host of the faithful are no doubt already praying to the Blessed JP II to have a word with God about everything from their lung cancer to their bad luck at cards.
It hardly seems fair. Thus far the Church has canonised 78 popes, almost all of them in the first four centuries AD. They were all apparently a dab hand at miracles but after that it became much rarer. JP II is the tenth beatified pope: in the waiting-room for sainthood along with the Blessed John XXIII. The pope for whom the greatest unsuccessful push for beatification has been made (I remember being cajoled into praying for it myself) was Pius XII. But lingering problems about his good relations with the Nazis and failure to intercede for Jews on their way to the death camps have somehow been allowed to count against the many miracles already claimed in his name. JP II meanwhile is on track to jump the queue: some of the ten beatified popes are from way back, and even nuns as devout as Sister Marie are unlikely to pray to Victor III (1086-87) or Urban II (1088-99) to intercede about anything, while JP II is, so to speak, freshly minted and clear in the memory.
There is much here for the Mugabes to reflect on. They have taken over the Anglican church in Zimbabwe, with pro-Zanu-PF bishops and priests installed everywhere (and given farms), while those loyal to the non-Zanu-PF church have to meet in private houses and even there they are harassed. As yet the Catholic Church has not been touched, presumably because the Vatican would retaliate by withdrawing its invitations to Rome. But as and when Mugabe finally dies, don’t be surprised if Grace starts a campaign to create the Blessed Bob.