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United in faith, not necessarily in practice

VATICAN CITY

st the seemingly placid sea of followers who have come to bid farewell to the Pope, things are not as calm or predictable as they seem.

Like the Roman Catholic Church itself, the hundreds of thousands of admirers taking their place in the Vatican may appear uniform and orderly. In fact, their disparate motives and competing loyalties reveal many of the rivalries and competing forces for change within the church -- forces that are likely to come to the fore during the selection of the next pope.

The saucer-eyed young people strumming guitars, holding hands and singing folk songs in St. Peter's Square, hundreds of them, have been described by visitors and journalists as hippie throwbacks to the sort of liberal, freewheeling Christianity that Pope John Paul spent his career resisting.

In fact, these youths are adherents to an ultraconservative Catholic order that was sanctioned and encouraged by the Pope himself. They are neocatechumenates, members of a sect whose members believe that ordinary Catholics are insufficiently faithful and who evangelize non-believers and fellow members of the church with a fanatical zeal.

And the solemn, pious-looking Italians taking their places in elegant clothes and quiet prayers? Look again.

"We're believers, but I'm afraid we normally don't have time to follow the church's teaching much," said Fulvia Silvestri, an elegant blond-haired Roman woman wearing a Versace scarf.

Ms. Silvestri was at the centre of St. Peter's Square yesterday, reciting the Holy Rosary with intense resolve. Her arm was around Martin Stein, a well-tailored fellow Italian who described himself as her "life partner." Like a great many Italian couples, they never bothered to get married.

"I don't follow all of the Pope's teachings or the church's doctrines," Ms. Silvestri said. She echoed the views of a great many Italians, whose rates of divorce, common-law marriage and birth-control use are among Europe's highest.

"He sends a message of inspiration and hope, even to those of us who don't subscribe 100 per cent to the Catholic faith," she argued.

That view is held by many others among the European Catholics who have rushed to the square in recent days.

"I consider myself a real Catholic, and I truly love this man, but I really haven't had time to go to mass for many years," said Fabiola Thereus, who came with her two children and her husband. "I really have not been true to this Pope's teachings, but I still think he sets a model for all of us."

Yet John Paul's teachings have actually made the church far more prohibiting to selective believers like these. He declared it a mortal sin to remarry without an annulment, and announced far tougher, sometimes absolute, spiritual admonitions against common-law relationships, homosexuality, birth control, premarital sex and other liberal social practices.

Yet here in the church's historic heartland, those practices are enjoyed heartily by millions of loyal Catholics -- including what seems to be a large part of the crowd that has gathered to pay tribute to the Pope.

Ms. Silvestri and Mr. Stein, for example, spent all Friday night standing vigil for the Pope, came again on Saturday for most of the night, and returned yesterday to spend the evening paying tribute to a man who turned the entire church against their lifestyle.

This is the nature of Catholicism today: a church whose teachings are more rigid than ever before in modern times, delivering a message to a seemingly eager response from European and North American followers who have shown little sign of taking them to heart.

The Pope's social conservativism may seem absolute and rigid to observers from outside the church, but even those Catholics who express the most devout love of John Paul are quite happy to admit having disobeyed his most serious admonitions.

Members of the conservative movements that supported him may have denounced this form of selective belief as "cafeteria Catholicism" and led a movement to return to more fervid and all-encompassing loyalty. But within mainstream Catholicism, that message itself has been received rather selectively.

That selective reception could be observed yesterday on the streets of Rome, where an important regional election is being fought. The Pope has become a campaign instrument thrown around by almost every party, from the extreme right to the left -- reflecting the disparate record of the Pope, who championed liberal human-rights causes while supporting some of the world's most rigidly conservative social conventions.

Posters appeared all over Rome yesterday bearing a large quote signed by John Paul: "It is the spirit of solidarity that must govern the world in order to overcome the egoism of people and nations."

The poster was signed by the social-democratic Margherita Party, whose platforms have almost nothing to do with the Pope's views. As the posters were going up, a candidate from one of the ultraright parties appeared on television declaring the Pope a model for his party, too.

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