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Sophie Masson
The author's website, with information about her life, her books, and essays on various topics.

Online Catholics
A weekly independent news e-magazine led by a lay team about contemporary Catholic life in Australia and the world.

Remembering The Vendee, by Sophie Masson
In early 1794 Robespierre’s Convention decided to exterminate the Vendéens to the last man, woman and child. If the French Revolution was the first modern ideology, were the Vendée massacres the archetype of modern genocides?

True Lies and the Quest for Authenticity, by Sophie Masson
Are an author's emotional or deeply-held beliefs enough to make a work ‘authentic?’ That’s the disturbing reasoning behind two recent journalistic hoaxes.

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John Paul II and the Art of the Sacred

Many people were critical of John Paul II because they regarded him as too conservative. But many others were equally critical because he was too liberal. This is the story of one such family, and why one member of it changed her mind.


Though I'm a Catholic, I was not brought up to revere the Pope, or even to listen to him. It's not for the usual reason within the Catholic communionthat my parents are ultra-liberals—but for the opposite, mirror reason, really, that they are ultra-traditionalists who did not accept Vatican II's changes, and whose rebellion crystallised around the issue of the Latin Mass. Their intellectual break with the notion of Papal infallibility occurred decisively in the early 70s; before that, they were merely uneasy, and I remember being taken to see Pope Paul VI when he came to Australia in 1970, and waiting in the early-morning streets of Sydney for ages just to see him going by.

I loved Catholicism, its beauty, its rituals, its deepest meanings and understandings, but never discussed it very much with my parents.
At home, I was brought up hearing Papal pronouncements sneered at and dismissed; and in the Latin Mass Society meetings that would follow the Tridentine rite Masses we would go to in Sydney community halls, you would hear talk that to an orthodox Catholic's ears would have sounded like the rankest heresy and schism. Many of the LMS people were maverick individualists who had never willingly bent the neck to anyone's authority, Pope or no Pope. My father, Treasurer of the LMS, and his friend and sparring partner, Secretary of the LMS, Hutton Gibson, Mel's father, were certainly two of those—and deep down, one felt they enjoyed the stoushes and confrontations with the 'official Church', as they called it. They were quite happy to declare every Pope since John XXIII in grave error. But more than a few were deeply distressed by the step they'd felt they had to take, and to cope with the pain that turning against the Papacy had cost them, some invented some truly extraordinary conspiracy theories that made even the imaginative child I was blush at their surreal thriller-like extravagance: such as, for example, the idea that the 'real' Pope was tied up and held prisoner in the dungeons of the Vatican, and that an impostor had taken his place.

Growing up, I took as little overt notice of the whole thing as possible. From the earliest childhood, I'd had a very strong sense of the presence of God, both within and without me. I'd always known that my feelings about God, my deepest apprehensions of Him were not like those of my analytical mother or my mystical but fundamentalist father. I loved Catholicism, its beauty, its rituals, its deepest meanings and understandings, but never discussed it very much with my parents, who were desperate to impart their own visions and understandings to me, and who were annoyed and distressed to discover that though I understood their pain and why they'd rebelled, and thought the Church hierarchy had over-reacted against them, I did not share their revolt. And I didn't take much notice of the Pope as an individual figure very much till I was well into my late teens. In a sense, being brought up in the way I was gives you a rather more 'Protestant', decentralised view of religion than is normally the case for a Catholic, and so the Pope always seemed like a rather distant and irrelevant figure to me. Too young to know John XXIII at all, too young to really appreciate Paul VI—who in any case was a rather ascetic, aristocratic figureit wasn't till the elevation of John Paul II to the Papal throne that I really began to look at the Pope, and what he might represent not only for Catholics worldwide, but for a great deal of the rest of the world.

Beauty is something that has in my opinion been sorely neglected in the post Vatican II rush after social justice.
I came to an admiration and appreciation of John Paul II first through an understanding of his moral and physical courage in exposing and defying Communist totalitarianism. Human freedom was a value highly espoused in our house; my father especially, an emotional if paradoxically personally authoritarian opponent of all forms of totalitarianism (including, as he saw it, the Papal one), has always held as the greatest good the bravery of the individual facing dictatorial regimes and systems. An awareness of the world, of history, of the current of human opinions and philosophies, was implicitly held to be essential in our family; we were brought up arguing and discussing around the dinner table, even if Dad would sometimes cut the discussion off abruptly. I was very well aware of what the twin ideological beasts of Fascism/Nazism and Communism had done to the world in the 20th century, and John Paul's brave and principled stand made me thrill with admiration and hope. As time went on, and I got to know more and more about this exceptionally gifted, brave, imaginative and intelligent man, my respect and admiration grew until it subtly morphed into something much more like love.

But it wasn't just John Paul's stand on human freedom, or his extraordinary, wonderful desire to reverse the anti-Semitism of the past, or his fortitude in both trying to hold true to essential Catholic understandings, and preserving the best of Vatican II whilst not allowing the other face of schism, too much radical change, to run unchecked (a difficult balancing act that may have brought him the ire of some but which gave a deep sense of security to many others, and which reconciled many former LMS rebels with the Church) which impressed me. It was also something else, something rarely written about in all the extraordinary personal eulogies that the Pope's death have brought out into the open, from all kinds of surprising people.

John Paul's writings showed me that the head of the Church took what we artists did seriously.
I'm an artist; a writer who feels very strongly that her art is a gift, a grace from God, one I humbly give thanks for and have a responsibility for, as to how I treat it. For me, the understanding, as an artist himself—actor, poet, playwrightthat John Paul II brought to the arts, and how art needs a sense of the sacred if it is to mean more than flash in the pan commercialism, or a desperate clutching at ideological straws, or personal navel-gazing, was a very strong element too in growing to love the Pope. It is a long time since we have had a Pope who understands the arts in the way that John Paul II did; beauty is something that has in my opinion been sorely neglected in the post Vatican II rush after social justice. I'm not denigrating social justice—it is a necessary part of Christianitybut beauty also needs to be part of the equation of faith. Artists have in postmodern times tended to neglect, ignore or turn their backs on the Church, on religion itself, on the sacred, because, I think, not only ideological fashion but also the Church's perceived lack of imagination and its over-emphasis on things not of the spirit. Though this is beginning to change, in alignment with the widespread changes that are bringing a religious sensibility closer to the mainstream again, we are still a long way from the unashamed expression of God in artistic beauty that used to be the case. But John Paul's writings on the matter showed me that the head of the Church took what we artists did seriously; did not necessarily want to guide us polemically, but was able to see the essential truth that most artists carry in their hearts and their souls: that in doing what we were born to do, we are, in a sense, expressing God, praising God, depicting the strange, beautiful, terrible world He has made, both within and without us.

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May 16, 2005

SOPHIE MASSON is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Her most recent novel is "Snow, Fire, Sword"(Random House Australia).

This article first appeared in OnlineCatholics.com. Reprinted with permission of the author. ©2005, Sophie Masson. All rights reserved.

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05.17.05   Godspy says:
Many people were critical of John Paul II because they regarded him as too conservative. But many others were equally critical because he was too liberal. This is the story of one such family, and why one member of it changed her mind.

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