It would be something only unimaginable to my mind, to receive a phone call from some stranger permanently inflicting me with the knowledge that my father had set himself on fire. On Thursday, a fifty-one year old man decided he would stroll into St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, pour petrol over his own body and set himself on fire for the whole world to see. Does one simply wake up some morning and decide they are going to do something so irrevocable?
Last night, I read the sincerely saddening news that this man died. He was rushed to Rome's Sant'Eugenio hospital with third-degree burns over his upper body. One report said that he was married and worked as a cleaner in a nearby Vatican-run hospital. It also mentioned he had family problems and health issues. My heart sank as I read the report of his death. Such overwhelming sadness.
Thinking, I wondered of what he thought as he caught fire, and as the fire spread over his body, did he have any remorse? If so, it must have been overwhelming despair and heavy self-pity. I cannot help but feel such sorrow about it all. Some distressed priest battled back the flames with his cloak, what did he think at that moment? Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see and impose a narrative of some sort on the chaos of an event to make it digestible. I would be insincere writing this, if I did not disclose that my most immediate thought was that this incident is symbolic of the darkness of the church.
When first I chanced upon news of this event I found it upsetting, uneasy, haunting, and fascinating. It shocked me significantly. The pictures of him impressed upon me deeply, and I could not not think of them relatively often. Discontent with the idea of just letting this event, his decision, his exhibition, fade away. That man did what he did for something? What was he trying to say? Is it a pointless exercise to even imagine? I thought about his daughter, and my heart goes out to her. One of the perpetual fascination's of our species, has been the contemplation of the miseries of others. There seems to me sometimes, such casual acceptance. It is just another news item. The consideration and reflection of the unsound, the unfortunate, the untouchable, and the unspeakable, impose on us an examination of ourselves, of our own nature. In their lives are our own lives, in ways.
In January 1998, Alfredo Ormando, an Italian writer, also self-immolated, as the correct term for it is, in St Peter's Square, and he wrote in a letter to his friend Reggio Emilia exactly why:
"I haven't been able to escape this idea of death, I feel I can't avoid it, nor can I pretend to live and plan a future I do not have ; my future will just be a prosecution of this present.
. . I hope they'll understand the message I want to convey; it is a form of protest against the Church which demonises homosexuality, demonising nature at the same time, because homosexuality is her offspring."
Could the controversial teachings of the church be the same motivations behind Thursday's event? Those teachings in which many people identify racism, sexism, suppression of women, and hatred of same-sexuality. The churches prejudices, its taboos, and its superstitions. Could it be connected to the vast, criminal, and shameful history of sexual abuse and negligence in dealing with it? One wonders. Chekov did write that man will become better when you show him what he is like.
In October of this year, a sixty-four year old man, John Constantino, set himself on fire on the Mall in Washington. Joggers, passing by, attempted to deflame him with their shirts. The man was then rushed to a local hospital, and was conscious and breathing, but he died of his injuries. If this is an act of protest, an act of total desperation, and an act of anger, a criticism of our society, shouldn't we listen? We should pay attention the burning men of our world, because no person should have to set their self on fire just to get our attention. That man decided to do what he did in public. The flaming man of St. Peters Square should not be forgotten or ignored, and it is up to us to pay attention. For all that is unknown now, there may be from that much to learn.
The fascination this event demanded of me, may be explained by the probable fact that we will never understand why it happened. The man on the Mall's motives, for instance, still remain unknown. Probably, they will always remain so. It is just one remarkable and totally unexplainable event that horrified and shocked many and in itself explained nothing. One sufficiently horrific moment that can make us acknowledge how violent life can be, makes us all reconsider the value of kindness, of dignity, and the human right to life, and the need to honour and respect that right.