ROME—Millions push toward the bier of Pope John Paul II. Britain postpones a royal wedding. Television coverage is nonstop, and major newspapers run headlines proclaiming the dead pontiff "The Last Giant."
The outpouring has surprised many on a continent that has moved away not only from the Roman Catholic Church during the pope's 26-year pontificate but also from religion in general.
"It's almost as if his religion was irrelevant to his popularity," said Franco Ferrarotti, chair of the University of Rome's sociology department and a well-known cultural commentator. Ferrarotti admitted he was stunned by the millions who've flocked to Rome. "On substance, he disagreed with the majority of people."
That substance includes issues such as contraception, abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality, where polls repeatedly show the pope's views at odds with most Europeans.
Less than 20 percent of Europeans said they attended church—any church—in a poll conducted last year by the European Union. In Nordic Europe, that number is less than 5 percent. Beyond statistics, Europeans often talk about secularism as a goal, and John Paul II reportedly was frustrated that Europe's proposed constitution makes no mention of God.
What then to make of the throngs who rushed to Rome at word of the pope's death?
"We know that even the people who love so much this pope did not listen to him in their everyday lives," said Ferrarotti. "Maybe what we are seeing is simply the hunger in Europe for a leader."
Patrick Weil, a sociologist at the University of Paris, believes that the throngs of people show that while Europeans may not agree with the church's teachings, its cultural roots are deep.
"We live a secular life, but when a big moment comes along, we go back to church," he said. "Face it, people marry and are buried in church. They just spend very little time there in between. But in the end, it is part of our cultural identity."
Johannes Christian Koecke, who studies religion and ethics at Germany's prestigious Konrad Adenauer Stiftung research center, admitted that he's been baffled all week by what's happening in Rome.
Having once met the pope, he said, he understands the man's charisma. He also wondered if the reaction to his death doesn't have more to do with religion than a secular continent would want to admit.
Europeans, he suggested, may have stopped going to church partly because it doesn't live up to modern expectations. People expect great meals at a restaurant, great music at a concert and great spiritual moments in church, he said.
"But so much of church is simply routine. People decide it's boring and move on. But this pope wasn't boring, ever," he said.
He said John Paul II, always on the move, always concerned about the poor and weak, met one expectation: He moved people.
"I think, in the end, he was feeding a latent desire in Europeans for the church and for belief," he said. "In recent years, Europe has lacked orientation. John Paul II gave that."
Grace Davie is the director of the Center for European Studies at Exeter University in England and studies patterns of belief. She said the reaction to the pope's death "exposes the fragility of European secularism."
Davie said Europeans have persuaded themselves that secularism would become an essential part of modern life as the world moved away from public religion. But, in recent years, she said, it's become obvious that Europe isn't out on the leading edge of a trend, but out by itself.
"It turns out Europe is the exception, and that what we do today will not be copied by the world tomorrow," she said. "And what we're seeing this week, I believe, is that Europeans aren't quite as sure about where we're leading either. I mean, we've canceled a royal wedding. That's rather extraordinary, isn't it?"
She doubts that young people who flocked to see the pope, both in life and in death, overlooked his religious import.
"The most popular religious leaders in the world right now use the means of modernity to question the values of modernity," she said. "It's a very successful approach around the world, and he was very good at it."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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