Sunday, 1 September 2013

The song makes the difference

"A £350,000 ‘glow in the dark’ Lamborghini faces being scrapped if its wealthy owner doesn't fork out for insurance in time... Police have put the 220mph car on display outside their HQ while they consider what action to take against the driver. The ‘glow in the dark’ purple supercar, rumoured to be owned by a wealthy Arab, could be sent to the crusher after it was removed from a Knightsbridge street.”

The purple and orange paintwork would win the vehicle no prizes for subtlety and tastefulness, but many Metro-reading commuters on the London Underground obviously appreciated a recent success story of Operation Cubo, a Metropolitan Police day of action against uninsured drivers. The Met proudly declared that, on a single day in June, it seized 656 vehicles and also made 135 arrests for crimes which included robbery, drugs supply, metal theft, weapon-related offences and for being wanted offenders. It further announced that “A total of 10,318 vehicles have been seized as part of Operation Cubo since October 2011.” Impressive! Interestingly, a couple of weeks after the taking custody of the Lamborghini, its owner had still not come forward to reclaim his missing car. Perhaps he has a spare?

Vehicles have been in the news recently as the remarks which Pope Francis made to seminarians and the novices of various religious Congregations quickly featured in the media across the world. "It hurts my heart when I see a priest with the latest model car... Cars are necessary. But take a more humble one... Think of how many children die of hunger and dedicate the savings to them."

He knew what he was saying. In parts of Nigeria, for instance, how many parishes virtually beggar themselves in their effort to provide a newly-ordained priest with a car which is, hopefully, bigger and better than the one presented to one of his classmates by a neighbouring parish? How many ordinands, knowing the custom and that a collection is underway, refuse the car and opt for a motor bike instead? Some form of transport is a necessity where they might have as many as 70 sub-parishes in their care, but how big and expensive does it have to be?

After the papal advice to seminarians and novices, the staff of the Vatican garages should have been more prepared than they were to receive a visit from their apostolic employer. Pottering around the place, Francis soon saw for himself the fleet of magnificent bespoke and often bulletproof Mercedes Benzes with their coveted SCV (abbreviations for Stato della Città del Vaticano and Status Civitatis Vaticanae, the Italian and Latin names for Vatican City) registration plates. Outside the garage and poised for rapid response, the Vatican’s fire engine is equally beautiful. Untested by emergency trips through crowded streets, its tyres are in the same pristine condition as when the vehicle rolled from the production line.

For journeys outside Vatican City, the Pope needs, as did his predecessors, a vehicle which enables him to stand whilst travelling, seeing and being seen by the crowds of waiting people who line the roads. On his election, he received the keys to a brand new M-class Mercedes, but, guess what? According to various sources, he prefers driving in an ordinary Ford Focus, at least on non-official trips within Vatican City (where one can walk for miles before reaching a given destination).

At a guess, it will not be long before the Vatican garages are occupied by fewer and cheaper vehicles as the Pope continues to challenge the world to adopt a simpler lifestyle. He has already ordered the removal of a statue of himself which well-wishers erected outside the cathedral in Buenos Aires. In fact the statue only stood in the cathedral garden for two weeks before he learned about it and personally phoned the archdiocesan offices to insist on its removal. Yet even in those two weeks, hundreds of people posed for their unique photo opportunities beside the life-sized image.

Uniquely, Pope Francis was recently named ‘Man of the Year’ by Vanity Fair Italia. The global media eagerly awaits all that he has to say, devouring his pithy sound bites. To an extent, the publicity is of his own making, but only because he speaks sensibly, his words touching countless thousands of hearts. The media attention is not generated by a need for papal self-aggrandisement.

Life is somewhat different for Pope Francis and the wealthy owner of the colourful and impounded Lamborghini. Neither looks for publicity, but for very different motives. One would imagine that a fine for an unregistered vehicle and a parking ticket cost considerably less than forking out another £350,000 for a new car. Does the ‘wealthy Arab’ have so much money that £350,000 is ‘small change’? Can he not risk possible exposure? Is there another story that perhaps the police might find even more interesting than his luxury car parked in Knightsbridge?

A recent street fair in Clapham brought together the residents of Clapham and Wandsworth Commons for a delightful day of community enjoyment in aid of a nearby school. In spite of the high temperatures and lack of shade, a dancer led passers-by in vigorous, fun-filled and colourful routines. As young adults enjoyed their energetic dancing, a toddler decided that he wanted to contribute to the general merriment of the occasion. Leaving his mother, the small child joined the front row of dancers. Suddenly he became the focus of everyone’s attention, not because he had sought it but because what he was doing was special and commanded respect. Cameras flashed and, suddenly, he realised that people were watching. The little boy raced back to his mother, hiding his face in her skirt. Yet he was also drawn by the music and the dancing, feeling compelled to rejoin the fun. The trouble was that as soon as he danced, he attracted everybody’s interest once again, felt overwhelmed and returned to his mother, with whom he finally stayed until she decided to move away.

“Self praise needs no recommendation.” The first few months of Pope Francis’ pontificate have grabbed the world’s attention, but not because he has done anything to promote himself. Rather, he has been like the toddler, drawn to the music and dancing, not because he is a performer but because they hold a message which is bigger and more important than himself and which he is compelled to share.

A short film in the early 70s portrayed a Christ-figure in South America, imprisoned for singing a song which inspired others to join in. Eventually, condemned to death because of his refusal to stop singing, he sang even as the bullets of the firing squad silenced him – and as he died, every other prisoner picked up his melody, which soared above the rooftops and spread across the world.

Pope Francis is the toddler, but he is also the singer. The late Fr Tony de Mello SJ once wrote that the bird sings, not because it has a statement, but because it has a song. Their songs differentiate between the owner of the ostentatious Lamborghini and the Pope: one proclaims wealth. The other sings of God.