The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe 
by Colm Tóibín.
Cape, 296 pp., £16.99, October 1994, 0 224 03767 6
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In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. ‘He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish bishops.’ The Bishop surely personified the universal assurance of the episcopacy and, although he had been back in Kiev for only a year, of Catholicism itself. He also had a cathedral, now returned to the Church from which it had been seized in 1937, and available for celebrating mass after half a century’s use as a dormitory, a planetarium, an atheism club and a porn video theatre. The cathedral, however, was almost a ruin. The only place where the Bishop and his three priests could live was in the organ loft. They lacked the most basic artefacts of the religious life, such as chalices, Bibles and books. In the diocese there were 25 churches in need of restoration, but almost no people to fill them. The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were competition, and the Catholic community no longer existed. The continuity of the faith in this corner of Europe had been just about destroyed. Although the Bishop maintained a despairing loyalty as he surveyed the wreckage, he was, says Tóibín, ‘the first Catholic clergyman I had met who had no power’.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the part played by the Catholic Church in the liberation of Ukraine from Soviet oppression was negligible. Elsewhere the story was different. In Lithuania, although Catholicism had been suppressed between 1944 and 1990, the Church sustained a political as well as religious existence from the catacombs. It was not much of a threat to Communism, and in 1992 only 10 per cent of Lithuanians were reckoned to be Catholics. But its private observances became a mode of resistance. It collaborated with the Soviet state less than the Russian Orthodox Church, and by 1986 was taking risks with what it published. Although religious practice had died out even within Catholic families, the churches are now packed for Sunday mass, their services regrettably dull and normal. So here the Church lives – though in a different condition again from that in Croatia. Of all places Tóibín visited, Croatia is where the politics of religion remain least forgiving. In Medjugorje, a site of pilgrimage where apparitions of the Virgin are still said to occur, he finds the Good Friday service of Our Lord’s Passion conducted as an aspect, almost a celebration, of the Serbo-Croatian war. Peace is not what they pray for. Instead, he writes, ‘the images presented were of sacrifice and blood and violence.’

A still greater contrast with the void Communism left in Ukraine is the amplitude of Catholic practice in Poland. Here, it never died. On another Good Friday, Tóibín walked round Warsaw and found a dozen churches packed with the faithful and obedient. In Cracow, the queue for confession stretched beyond the cathedral doors, most of it made up of young people. In Gdansk, one reason for the vitality of religious observance suggested itself: there was simply nothing else to do. ‘Once the churches closed that night in Gdansk at around eleven o’clock there was nobody wandering in the shadowy streets, and there was no sign of life from any of the merchants’ houses. The city was dead.’ But there was also a submissiveness to authority perhaps endemic in the Polish character. Poland, a young woman writer tells Tóibín, was bad under the Communists but under the Catholics would be worse. On television, instead of having to listen to party propaganda, ‘you had Catholic priests telling married people that if they had a dog they should get rid of the dog and have another child.’ It had taken 45 years to remove the Communists, and was now going to take half a century to get rid of the Church. An unlikely eventuality, even when the Polish Pope has passed on.

Colm Tóibín is an exploratory, quizzical traveller. He starts his journeys from the base of a cradle Catholicism whose doctrinal teaching he long ago rejected, but whose cultural effects he has been unable to shake off. The reader has reason to welcome the tenacity of this inheritance. Tóibín travels with the soul and memory of a young boy who can still recall exactly what it was like at children’s mass in the cathedral at Enniscorthy. At home the family knelt to say the Rosary in the evening, and if you wanted to pass an exam you prayed to St Joseph of Cupertino. The only moments of relief from utter boredom were when young Colm’s father appeared to be shaking with uncontrollable laughter as the beads passed through his hands, and had to leave the room. Religious solemnity has a unique power to induce the wrong sort of hilarity. I remember myself, at solemn high mass at my English monastic school, sweating and convulsed, as I tried to hide purple giggles behind the Abbot’s mitre which I was supposed to be handing to His Eminence.

For the boy Tóibín, European travel consisted of only one rather modest experience: witnessing the annual ritual of the parish faithful setting off on the pilgrimage to Lourdes. Echoes of this past, steeped in Irish provincialism, regularly enrich his story of Catholicism in the Nineties. Turning up in Lourdes himself, he is mistaken for a priest and given the best room in an overbooked hotel. In Poland for the papal visit in 1991, he’s so moved by John Paul II’s demeanour, conducting a six-hour open-air ceremony, that he seems to get close to re-conversion. ‘There was something about the singing, the colours and the beauty of the words which reminded me of strange, hard-won moments of pure contentment I had experienced in the church as a child.’ The Pope’s ‘presence, after the long day, was still mysterious and charismatic. All the humdrum problems of his Church seemed meaningless now, small compared with the size and spirit of this gathering. He watched, his expression sad, otherworldly, bemused, but he appeared, none the less, to maintain all his strength and power.’ There’s no trace of the apostate’s bitterness here. The writer comes with a puzzled, but sympathetic, eye. If he has a disability, it emerges, unexpectedly, not in his attitude to religion but in the confession he regularly seems to be making to a distaste for travel itself. He fetches up in an awful lot of bars, with nobody to talk to. He’s the reverse of stoical when confronted by difficulties with bed and board, whingeing when he can’t find enough to eat, and complaining all the way from León to Santiago de Compostela, a foot-slogging journey on which he entirely fails to emulate the fortitude of pilgrims ancient and modern. But we travel easily with his elegant prose, and his unforced talent for atmospheric re-creation.

Tóibín doesn’t attempt many conclusions. This is a novelist’s not a politician’s book, a series of episodic experiences intermittently connected, leaving the reader to determine what pattern they disclose. Maybe that is just as well. For it is plausible to say that these ‘Travels in Catholic Europe’ finish up by undermining their own premise. What chiefly emerges is a growing doubt about whether ‘Catholic Europe’ is a realm that any longer exists. The phrase implies a churchly presence transcending frontiers, of the kind the Vatican aspires to, and Catholicism’s enemies have always feared. Common faith and united action fill out the conspiracy theory that still orders many people’s thinking about the Roman Church. But Colm Tóibín’s account does not describe a Masonic network of power. What he finds are churches that seem more forlorn than powerful, and display hardly any sense of a unifying purpose. Almost everywhere outside Poland, the priests he meets have their backs to the wall. Not only does unbelief flourish, so do different forms of religious nationalism. Varied species of national Catholicism emerge more persuasively than the sweeping Continental presence some of us grew up with. The Bishop of Kiev may be the only prelate Tóibín met who has neither congregation nor power, but modern Catholic countries have often lost the faith, and operate versions of belief and practice that are increasingly their own.

Seville is where we catch Spanish Catholicism. Tóibín is there for yet another Easter – Easter seems to be his preferred testing time. He’s riveted by the Palm Sunday processions, making their way from local churches to the central cathedral, with floats and statues of Christ and the Virgin. Especially the Virgin. ‘There was less interest when there was no Virgin. Even a gruesome crucified Christ surrounded by flowers did not get the same attention as a Virgin. You could not move as she went by, people crushed forward to see her.’ Throughout Holy Week there would be perhaps sixty of these processions, followed by thousands of citizens, feet unshod and eyes ablaze. For Seville is a city with a historic addiction to the Virgin. But Seville also has a strong Communist working class, and a large Socialist Party, most of whose activists seldom go to church. Most Sevillians have long since ceased to practise, and their politics are deeply anti-clerical. Yet at Easter they tog up in traditional dress, vie to carry the statues and argue fiercely about whose band played best. When Tóibín asks whether they believe in God, they serenely deny it. So why did they take part? Roots, tradition, city, parents, heritage; an excuse to be out on the street; done because it had always been done; they’d never dream of missing it. This is not the Catholicism of the One, True, Universal Church so much as the tribal ritual of a people whose self-belief depends less on religion than on history.

The contrast with Britain could hardly be greater. Britain is the only area of northern European Protestantism Tóibín ventures into. History has produced here a pathology in which disputes about the nature of belief itself still matter, more than almost anywhere. Conspiracy theory has pervaded recent politics as deeply as it marked four centuries of history. The supposed secret agendas of Catholic Europe had a powerful influence on the anti-European cause of the post-war years. To an important extent Great Britain owes its present aloofness from Europe to the anti-Catholic prejudices of almost all British politicians in the first post-war decade. But in those days there was at least such a place as Catholic Europe. Founders of modern Europe such as Adenauer, de Gasperi and Schuman were national leaders powerfully motivated by belief, who saw a religious dimension behind their grand political project. The intermingling of politics with belief and allegiance was one of the things that put the British off. Now the positions seem to be reversed. The nature of belief is a more potent preoccupation among the offshore islands than in most of the mainland centres. Compared with Britain and Ireland, the Continent turns out not to be engaged by the question of what Catholicism amounts to, still less by taking sides between brands of Christianity.

In Scotland, the issue is hedged by self-deception, Tóibín goes there because he wants to sort out some kind of truth about the Northern Irish question, and thinks he might do it by looking at the ‘shadowy version’ of Ireland he expects to find in Glasgow. He asks around for an introduction to a Scottish Catholic writer. But nobody can give him a single name. They simply don’t know about religious affiliations, they say. They tell him he’s making a mistake if he thinks Scotland is anything like Ulster. And when the only known Scottish Catholic writer, the novelist Thomas Healy, finally surfaces, he, too, thinks this is a non-question. It’s the first time he’s ever been asked about his religion, he remarks. But as anyone knows who knows Glasgow, this is mostly the burial of consciousness. Scotland can be as impenitently riven by religious bigotry as Ulster. There were always few Catholic writers in Scotland because Catholics, by and large, didn’t belong to the writing classes. But belief and allegiance were impediments too. They eat their way into many divides. Attending a Celtic v. Rangers soccer match, Tóibín finds himself in the middle of a celebration of religious aggression he has not witnessed even round the bloody altars of Croatia.

England, extraordinarily, is the only place where belief itself is debated. Disillusion with the Church of England, and the emigration from it, has given new vitality to the Church of Rome in England. Here the Roman presence seems to be expanding, on a basis as different as anyone could imagine from the unbelieving rituals of Seville. Whatever else one may say about the conversions of John Gummer, Charles Moore and others on the Anglican Right, they raised a serious argument about the nature of authority. Religious truth has become a big issue. Terry Eagleton, born a Lancashire working-class Catholic of (naturally) Irish stock, captures beautifully for Tóibín the paradox whereby he never felt English because he was a Catholic, was marginalised because he belonged to a minority, yet felt superior because he was in possession of the truth. But now Romanism edges closer to the English Establishment. Ann Widdecombe MP, another who poped last year, got it done at Westminster Cathedral, without audible Irish intervention. She and Piers Paul Read are about the only witnesses here with whom Tóibín has serious theological discussions. Both speak for a quite fiercely conservative version of Catholicism, unacceptable to many English Catholics and most West Europeans but echoing some of the voices that have breathed life back into religion in the Czech-lands and points east. Rome may be gaining in England, but the story is of division further divided.

Tóibín’s book would like to resist this conclusion. At the end, he returns to Enniscorthy. The cathedral where he was marked as a child is closed for repairs. The unthinkable is happening, evening mass being said, at the invitation of the Church of Ireland, under a Protestant roof. Next morning, a Protestant service will be held back-to-back with another mass, and all worshippers are invited to both. How strange, Tóibín understates. He sees it as a hopeful portent, the end of sectarianism. ‘History had come to an end in Enniscorthy.’

This seems far too optimistic. A more telling final image, beautifully conveyed, is of Pope John Paul II at Easter 1994. Three years earlier, at Czestochowa, he had seemed vibrant and shimmering, an irresistibly attractive figure even to the faithless sceptic. Now, in Rome, he is found to be worn and distant, nothing like the man he was. In recent weeks, one might add, it has become indecently normal to anticipate John Paul’s imminent death. His successors’ names are already in the hands of the bookmakers. In the old days, popes just died, their ailing powers as Vicars of Christ never countenanced beforehand. Now the new era is already being impertinently prepared.

As a world leader, this Pope has had a great impact. To the hard-core faithful, he has been an inspiration. As the Polish Pope, he had special opportunities in Europe, and without him the reunification of West and East probably wouldn’t have happened as it did. But he has also been fatally divisive. Within the Church he’s the warrior, not the healer. Instead of personifying an institution no longer in the hands of Italians and therefore more truly international, he’s become the symbol of a narrow Church, whose leaders in the different nations spend much of their time more or less discreetly distancing themselves from him. Among his beneficiaries is the Bishop in Kiev, impeded from free worship only by a shortage of cash, not, at long last, by atheistic oppression. But another legacy is that Catholicism doesn’t unite nations as much as it divides them, now more than ever. And Catholic Europe isn’t what it was even fifty years ago.

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Vol. 16 No. 24 · 22 December 1994

Hugo Young’s review of Colm Tóibín’s Sign of the Cross (LRB, 24 November) makes it sound as if Tóibín should have been more precise in his account of the Bishop of Zhytomir. His Church is not exactly Roman Catholic but rather Greek Catholic or Uniate – owing allegiance to the Pope, but in most other respects indistinguishable from the Orthodox Church. It was created by the Poles and the Habsburgs and is naturally strongest in Western Ukraine, the area ruled first by the latter, then by the former until 1939 – if Tóibín had seen the religious life of Lviv, as the city is called in contemporary Ukraine, he would have had a very different tale to tell. Uniates did play a major role in the movement towards Ukrainian independence, and thus in the downfall of the Soviet Union. Kiev, however, was the wrong place to look.

Tim Burford

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