Vatican’s pop culture stunts get Arab Christians talking

The Vatican is looking hip and cool and not just because of new souvenir lollipops carrying Pope Francis’s smiling face

Francesca Astorri
Francesca Astorri - Special to Al Arabiya English
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There’s a new buzz among Arab Catholics. For the first time this 2,016-year old institution is changing the way it reaches its faithful. The Vatican is looking hip and cool and not just because of new souvenir lollipops carrying Pope Francis’s smiling face.

From the first tweet of the Pope, to the new TV series “The Young Pope” by Italian director Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino, Christians around the world have been seeing the Church reshaping the way it presents itself.

It’s a big move from the days when Pope Ratzinger - Benedict XVI - was giving mass in Latin and abolishing the Vatican traditional Christmas pop concert because he considered it “unsuitable”. Far from the days when Italian priests labelled rock as Satan’s music. Today the Catholic Church is ready to embrace technology, remove its formal gown and wear jeans.

In Rome’s Borgo Pio neighborhood, next to the Vatican walls, there was graffiti by Mauro Pallotta, known as Maupal, representing Pope Francis playing spreaders. A Pontifical Swiss guard was sketched too as if it was making sure no one was coming while the Pope was marking his cross on the wall.

Street art has always been considered far from the Vatican’s taste and etiquette. Despite the fact that the graffiti was immediately removed by the responsible for the urban decorum of Rome, this new cartoonish representation of the Pope was all over the web. In 2014 similar graffiti by the same artist, this time representing the Pope as Superman was also removed. The official account of the Vatican tweeted the photo of the Pope-Superman, a move which some observers said showed its tacit approval.

But how are Arab Christians perceiving these modern ways of communicating introduced by the Church?

“I don’t agree with these new ways of the Church. The Church is holy and it doesn’t have to change, to go on Twitter or things like that” said a Syrian Arab Christian, originally from a small town near Homs, but now living in Italy - who asked to remain anonymous. This feeling is shared by many Arab Christians who were also shocked when watching Hollywood actor Jude Law playing a Pope, who smoked and said he didn’t believe in God right on the first episode of the first season of TV series “The Young Pope”.

On the other side, some Christians were feeling put off by Pope Benedict XVI’s traditional attire, and have welcomed Pope Francis’ new ways.

“Pope Francis is not afraid of communicating in modern ways, he has a new attitude and it’s not reversible” said Thomas Michel, Professor at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, who worked in the Vatican under Pope John Paul II as head of the office for relations with Muslims.

“I have Arab Christians from Lebanon in my family and I feel they don’t have a different perception and attitude towards this change of the Church” Michel told Al Arabiya English, adding that once change is in the top levels, it will reach the offices too.

If there is a shared perception of change, for better or worse, the real question is if this change in communicating is representing a more deeper change.

Recent decisions taken by the Church might reveal that if there is a change it might only be on the surface. This week Pope Francis said explicitly that women will never be serving as Roman Catholic priests, a reform that has been discussed a lot within the Vatican and its believers.

The Pope had also a trembling position on giving the communion to divorced and remarried believers, and no formal step was taken for gay people after he said “who am I to judge gay people?” showing a sort of open position on the subject, but without turning into a reform of any kind. The impression now is that change seems to be everywhere in the Church, but maybe nowhere.



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