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A kiss is still a kiss

NCR Staff

Papal trips are a kind of theater played on a world stage. Gestures and symbols and how they are perceived is a high art. Nothing illustrates the point better than the frenzy surrounding the kiss of local soil in Athens.

In John Paul’s travels, he has traditionally knelt to kiss the soil as soon as he arrives in a new country. Today, in concession to his aging joints, a container of soil is usually brought to him.

In Greece, Orthodox leaders, arguing that conservatives would see the kiss as a claim on Orthodox territory, had pressed the pope to refrain from his usual ritual. There was some precedent for the request. In 1979, the pope had kissed a crucifix resting on a pillow rather than the ground in East Timor to avoid inflaming passions surrounding that island’s bid for independence.

In Greece, the situation became more confused in the hours before the pope’s arrival. A local Catholic official told reporters that John Paul would not kiss the soil, while a Vatican spokesperson insisted he would. Thus when the pope’s Air Italia jet rolled into Athens May 4, all eyes were on the action at the bottom of the stairs.

They didn’t see much.

As sometimes happens when the pope is mobbed, the crowd of local dignitaries on hand crowded in so tightly that few could see what transpired.

Did he or didn’t he do the kiss? Immediately afterwards no one seemed to know.

Frustrated reporters in the Athens press center awaited the return of the pool reporters from the airport. Things became truly desperate when the first ones to get back shouted, “What happened?” in the hope that the events had been clearer on the television feed. Some reporters on the scene, in fact, had called colleagues in Rome who were watching the welcome ceremony unfold on CNN to find out what they knew -- which, again, was nothing.

Yet because news, like nature, abhors a vacuum, stories had to be filed. Several agencies decided no smoke meant no fire, and moved accounts saying the pope had not kissed Greek soil. They spun it as yet another concession to Orthodox sensibilities. It became the official line on radio and TV.

Within minutes, however, rumors began circulating that John Paul had indeed kissed something. Ansa, an Italian wire service, ran a story saying that the pope had kissed a bowl of Greek soil carried by a nun. The soil, Ansa said, came from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Timios Stavnos (“Holy Cross”), the sort of detail that gave the report an air of authority.

No sooner had this hit the wires, however, than whispers began that the nun had “denied” the story. Chaos ensued.

The version of events that eventually gained consensus is this. Two Greek children and the nun presented a bowl of soil to the pontiff, with olive branches on top. The pope kissed it. No one knows for sure where the soil came from, and no one seems to know how the story that it was from a monastery got started.

In the end, Vatican organizers seemed pleasantly surprised that pictures of the kiss did not dominate early media reports.

A CNN-era version of the old saw about a tree falling in the forest thus made the rounds among the press corps: If something takes place on a papal trip but no one gets video of it, did it really happen?

The apparent answer in Athens was: Not until Joaquín Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, says it did.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001