Sunday, April 10, 2005

So we got back last night. We were in Puerto Rico, which was lovely and soothing -- but as we were on our way there I was half-expecting that we'd arrive and find the whole place virtually shut down, because the Pope was losing his grip on life and Puerto Rico is una isla catolica.

But the Pope's death hardly seemed to be have an effect. Our first stop was in the karst country, and as were driving out and the local papers were reporting that El Papa was con los angeles, it seemed to be just another Sunday for those leaving church -- as well as for the many men heading for the cockfights (which were taking place at a big hall a few doors down from a church). The same day we drove to Rincon, and on the stretch of beach outside our hotel a stunt bicycle demonstration was going on as if nothing earth-shattering was happening elsewhere; a lot of gringo surfers go to Rincon, but the live music and the patter of the MC were in Spanish only, and the crowd was made up of locals.

It was like that all week, everywhere we went -- maybe we missed them, but there seemed to be no big public gatherings; there seemed to be nothing unusual going on at the churches or Catholic schools or town plazas. I thought at least we'd see pictures of the Pope in shop windows, or under glass at the cash registers in bakeries -- but no.

We were occasionally able to see a little English-language news on TV, and on the flights down and back we were reading The New York Times, and if I'd been judging just from those sources I might have concluded that the Pope's death was almost like 9/11, that it virtually brought life to a halt for the faithful. In Puerto Rico, though, nothing like that seemed to be happening.

And really, why should it have been? He was in his eighties. He wasn't well. There'll be another Pope soon.

While I was in Puerto Rico I was reading Far from the Madding Crowd. In nineteenth-century English novels, just about everyone attends church and believes in God (you know Hardy's Sergeant Troy is a blackguard because he never attends, and lies about it) -- but Christianity isn't worn on the sleeve. The farms in Far from the Madding Crowd aren't "Christ-centered businesses" -- the men don't gather in a prayer circle every morning and make a great show of reading Scripture before threshing.

Was Hardy's Wessex wanting in spirituality? I don't think so, and I don't think Puerto Rico is either. But I wonder if it would seem that way to the people who savor America's ever more florid religiosity, and who cheered the Catholic Deadheads who camped out last week in Rome.

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