Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Sacred, the Regional, and the Digital

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Sacred, the Regional, and the Digital

Article excerpt

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." . . . [T]he words mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system more or less coherent or articulate . . . and on the other side those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. . . . [T]hese last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.

- Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, 1953

Once upon a time, in truth not long ago at all, there was a French bishop whose name was Jacques Gaillot. In January 1995 the bishop's prosperous diocese had its see in Evreux, a genially rustic corner of Normandy, close by Chartres. The bishop, quite to the satisfaction of his rural diocesans, saw himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden of Paris, as well might a good Catholic cleric who regarded wearing the miter as a holy charge rather than a divine privilege.

But this bishop's activism was brought to the attention of a restive Vatican, which in no small degree grew concerned, likely (and rightly) foreseeing problems in the forced ecclesiastical interaction of a celebrated French cleric and a plenipotentiary Polish pope. So it was that the bishop received a summons to Rome. After conferring there with Pope John Paul II, he was summarily shipped back to France while a disposition was being reached. On 12 January 1995 the bishop was removed from his post: "I had met the dead line" pere Gaillot wrote in a pastoral letter. "I was told that my function as bishop had come to an end and that the See of Evreux will be declared vacant from the following day midday onwards" (Gaillot 1995).

The problem with this papal action is that even in a generously endowed Church hierarchy there is no room for spare bishops to be knocking around. And it bears recollecting that in the larger scheme of things a Catholic bishop is, when all is said and done, considered a divinely consecrated representative of the Almighty. The quandary became, then, who would rid Rome of this troublesome bishop? But, as Adam Gopnik phrased it, "one of those minds that have kept the Catholic Church in business for two thousand years had an inspiration: Why not send Jacques Gaillot to Partenia?" (Gopnik 1996, 60) And that, precisely, is what they did [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

Even Francophiles could be excused for giving voice to an exasperated, "Where??" For Partenia, not to put too fine an edge on it, currently lies underneath about 100 meters of sand near the edge of the Great Western Erg in northern Algeria. It has not been a real place, or, perhaps better said, an inhabited or habitable one, since about the eighth century A.D., when the Maghreb reached the Atlantic Ocean. In a twist of delectable elegance, the Vatican had appointed the good Bishop vescovo titulare, head of a titular see (Figure 2). As of mid-1996 his diocese lacked a single living follower but was extant because, whereas dunes and camels come and go, a Divine Power can afford to wait through mere centuries until humans may manage to reclaim a chunk of desert. Meanwhile, the need for someone to minister for souls past and potential is presumed to continue unimpeded and intact. At hand was a supreme revenge, the execution of smoothly realized Vatican passive aggression and a tactic tested through time and never before found wanting - the seconding of a troublesome senior cleric to what in effect amounted to an ecclesiastical nonplace.

There is, in all of this, a certain sumptuous symmetry: Bishop Gaillot was a thorn in the Vatican's side precisely because he had publicly proclaimed - before live television cameras, no less - that the French Catholic Church should quit stonewalling on issues of injustice, economic disadvantage, and the homeless of Paris. …

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