The history of the Papal State is rich and stormy. The position of the leader of church and the proclaimed substitute of the Catholic god on earth was several times occupied by ambitious politicians and army leaders who benefited from the spiritual untouchability of their position for purely secular purposes. Indeed, during the Middle Ages and into modern history the papacy was one of the strongest forces on the continent. However, the power of the Holy See inevitably diminished during the 19th and 20th centuries although through the Lateran Treaty signed by Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI (1929) The Vatican became a sovereign state. The decline can partly be attributed to the ambivalent role of church during the World War Two, when in some occupied countries the Church participated in the organisation of paramilitary forces in the fight against communist guerrillas. In the view of a great deal of the public, the papacy embedded in the heart of fascist Italy found itself on the wrong side; therefore it didn’t really have a lot of space to manoeuvre diplomatically in world politics after the war, not to mention that its moral strength was also significantly diminished.
To avoid falling into the oblivion of history, the Roman Catholic Church summoned the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where some inevitable reforms were adopted in relation to the modern world, including the widespread use of vernacular languages in the Mass. Another modernisation tactic which soon followed was not content-based but instead brought about some major changes in its ‘corporate identity’ and promotional techniques. 1978 was the year of the election of the first Pope of Slavic origin, Karol Wojtyła – Pope John Paul II. His central mission was the popularisation of Catholicism and the struggle against communism, in particular in eastern Europe. John Paul II instituted some radical changes to the doctrine of action and the image of the Roman-Catholic Church leader. From the first day he regularly appeared in public and he travelled constantly. Papal visits became mass spectacles whereby the church adopted the model of rock festivals, which had developed merely a decade earlier in the West. The Pope became a virtual pop star, accompanied and quoted by mass media wherever he went, whatever he did.
In 1979 he visited Poland for the first time. Mainly Catholic population within the socialist regime experienced catharsis upon his address – which implied imminent change. The state television which covered the event resorted to manipulation to avoid filming the mass of participants. John Paul II was a major player in what led to the huge social turn in the early 1990s when the Cold War finally appeared to have a winner. This (also on the ‘winner’s’ side) caused a breakdown of the system established after World War Two based on the notions of a welfare society. The West ‘defeated’ the East with the help of popular culture, entertainment industry and ideology of consumerism while simultaneously defeating itself as the standard of living of the major part of the population gradually changed for the worse.
Being aware of the political role of the Pope, the photographer Jaka Babnik made a long-term commitment to study the phenomena of the ‘new world order’ based on neo-conservative ideas promoted in particular by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He searched and recorded the venues that hosted the visits of John Paul II, focusing on eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia where these visits had an enormous effect in the 1980s and 1990s. He took pictures of the venues without the spectacle, bare and in the state of their original function. These venues included stadiums, hippodromes and other public spaces as well as isolated places holding an important strategic position. One of the latter is the Austrian village Trausdorf an der Wulka (1988), located next to the border with Hungary, where religion was (still) excluded from public life. A deserted grass field where the only reminder of the Pope’s visit is a small cross bears witness to the propaganda effect of such events and their temporal conditionality. Stripped of its glamorous set design these place are hardly recognisable.
Babnik topographically addressed key places of the Pope’s journeys in central Europe and the Balkans which in their eerie mundanity present virtually the opposite of the spectacular super-events which were held there. The artist’s coherence in the research of the phenomenon of the increasing influence of the Papal State is also vindicated in the appropriation of found materials. He collected a series of memorial pictures and objects intended for mass distribution and consumption which demonstrate this propaganda boom. The result is palimpsests of official photographs and moving pictures which represent a selection of the most decisive moments during the Pope’s spectacles. Photo opportunities were available at every step and John Paul II understood the power of imagery very well. One of the most iconic photographs presents his meeting with President Ronald Reagan of the USA, with whom he shared an agenda. At the beginning of his term, Ronald Reagan passed several decrees toward the continued pursuit and intensification of the Cold War with every available means whereby violations of human rights and freedom of religion ever more often figured as topical issues (where focus on these issues was convenient). The Pope, an apparently neutral harbinger of this agenda, occasionally had access (also) to the Eastern Bloc. Communism in eastern Europe was eventually defeated by religion, which had allegedly been eliminated from public discourse but made a spectacular ‘comeback’.
The western world scored a triumphant ‘victory’ in the Cold War and in return the Papal State was re-established on the world map of superpowers. In politics, the Catholic Church regained the status that it had not had since the time of absolutist reforms and the Age of Enlightenment. The ideology of the winners pervaded the world and re-established the ideas of socio-economic Darwinism and traditional Christian values. But this sort of propaganda has far-reaching consequences. Today in the period of the politics increasingly known as ‘post-truth’, the grandiose and uncontrollable populism propagated also by ‘the people’s Pope’ John Paul II has since exploded in unimaginable dimensions both in religious structures and political discourse.
Promotional clip from 1982, in support of Solidarity movement in Poland, sponsored by US Embassy in Warsaw and starring by Charlton Heston!
© Miha Colner, 15 January 2017