wed 12/08/2020

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, BBC Two

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, BBC Two

Fine views, but the pilgrims' religious motivation remains foggy

Simon Reeve in the Vatican CityLizzie Abbott

A cynic might say that the presenter of a series entitled Places that Don't Exist is perfectly qualified to go on a long walk to look for religious revelation. In keeping with his past explorations of wild places, Reeve's commentary was better on scenery than spirituality. Yet he didn't have the time to walk the entirety of any of his routes, giving his narration a slightly distant, disjointed feel.

Reeve made his reputation broadcasting about terrorism, and observed in the first episode that he felt uncomfortable with religious absolutism. It was just as well, then, that the series began last week in England, where pilgrimage and English pilgrims have been out of fashion since the Reformation, and those that are left are gentle, grey, and dwindling in number. 

This week, Reeve’s journey into Catholic Europe, where there has been unexpected growth in pilgrimages, promised crowds, youth and passion. Though a sympathetic interviewer, Reeve appeared to find expressions of religious faith embarrassing and bewildering, often moving the conversation on from, for example, a prayer for good health to a comment about medieval medicine. This episode didn’t boast quite as many assertions of his own atheism as last week’s, but it was still a bit like a guided tour of the solar system with a flat-earther.

Most pilgrims arrive here by coach; the huge church vaguely resembles the O2 Centre.

For the first two pilgrimages, to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain and over the St Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps, a lack of sympathy with religious inspiration didn’t matter much. None of the pilgrims he spoke to (in what seemed to be randomly chosen interviews) expressed any orthodox Catholic inspiration for their journey, the only religious sentiments being of the most vaguely spiritual kind. “Good karma and all that, right,” explained one young Mormon, part of a study trip at the St. Bernard Hospice. The Santiago de Compostela pilgrims were described by Reeve as mainly “prosperous adventure hikers”, an accurate description, insofar as we could tell from the handful of interviews with them. For most, the scenery came first, spirituality second. That’s how Reeve liked it too.

A more orthodox interest in saintly relics emerged when Reeve headed for San Giovanni Rotondo, in Puglia, southern Italy, global centre of the now very considerable Padre Pio industry. Televisually, San Giovanni Rotondo was a disappointment in comparison with his first two European destinations, lacking both their natural scenery and the architecture. Most pilgrims arrive here by coach; the huge church vaguely resembles the O2 Centre.

For a study of religious belief in modern pilgrimage it was an excellent choice, however. Pio is still a controversial figure, much loved by working-class Catholics, yet described by a friar and psychologist in the 1950s as “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people's credulity”. At the time of Pio’s canonisation by Pope John Paul in 2002, the Catholic Church was accused by some of capitulating in the face of his popularity, while Pio’s supporters decried the elitist denigration of a figure of huge popular appeal. The controversy rumbles on. In 2011 an Italian historian claimed to have evidence that Pio’s stigmata were artificially kept open with carbolic acid.

So what did the thousands who come every day to worship his embalmed body make of all this? We had no idea: none was interviewed, though there were friendly chats with the enterprising monks running the Padre Pio TV channel, and a local hotelier, who couldn’t believe his luck at both the numbers and luxurious taste of the modern pilgrim. It was at points like this that the format cried out for another presenter, who knew more about the religious context and was able to interrogate the bland procession of Pio’s worshippers. 

Politics has always been important in sainthood. St James’ remains were “discovered” in ninth-century Santiago de Compostela, it’s often suggested, because north-west Spain was a bulwark of Christianity in the battles against the Moors, and the remains rallied the troops. Padre Pio, likewise, is hugely popular with middlebrow Italian Catholics, an otherwise declining demographic, whose straightforward devotion isn’t troubled by a possible sleight of hand with carbolic acid. Reeve’s explanation for the extraordinary popularity of Pio’s vast church, meanwhile, “If you will build it, they will come,” was a pitiful cliche, self-evidently disproven by the beautiful, empty vaults of Lincoln Cathedral that Reeve toured lugubriously last week.  

Next week Reeve is travelling from Turkey to Jersualem. No doubt the scenery will again be stunning. But that really is a journey that calls for religious expertise.

The Santiago de Compostela pilgrims were described by Reeve as mainly prosperous adventure hikers

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