It is hard to believe that less than two years ago the Vatican was a byword for religious dogma and the papacy was seen as a bastion of reactionary, corrupt and most probably perverse practice. Back then, whenever I visited Italy I always despaired at the deep social and historical connection to the Catholic church. Of course, there is so much more to Italy than the Vatican and having lived in Rome I know that the city also has numerous faces, many of which are in direct countenance to Catholicism. However there was also a malignant infiltration of religious conservatism.
What a difference one man makes: the rising popularity of Pope Francis has been almost astounding. Last week, President Obama went to Rome in what many billed as an attempt to rub a little of the pope’s popular success on to himself. The pope’s message is simple and stern but never dogmatic – and even as a non-religious person I must admit that it is hard not to like the man.
As imbedded as the papacy is in the heart and soul of Italian society – when there’s a good pope the whole country seems to feel that bit better. In one of his first excursions from the Vatican last year, Pope Francis chose to visit Cagliari; perhaps a logical move as the city is twinned with his native Buenos Aires. More than a million people lined the streets, from elderly pilgrims to teenage skaters. Under the Mediterranean sun, the visit brought out the best of a place normally so dogged by economic malaise.
The papal euphoria is continuing to consume Italy. Just a few weeks ago, Il Mio Papa (My Pope) magazine launched, with a print circulation of 500,000. This weekly rag resembles its celebrity-driven neighbours on the newsstand to a tee and is tapping into a personality cult that Italians are willingly letting themselves fall into. The socio-economic preconditions of this are clear to see and sections of the fiercely secular, leftist intelligentsia remain stand-offish. And it must be remembered that the Papal message is socially and morally conservative in the extreme. Italians seeking gender equality or continuing reproductive rights, for instance, have nothing to thank Pope Francis for.
But for the time being it seems that even some of those Italians are transfixed. Soft Catholicism rocks. The country watched as Sister Cristina Scuccia, a Sicilian nun, stole the show on reality talent show The Voice of Italy. When asked if she thought the pope would approve she answered that she was waiting for his phone call. “He exhorts us to go out, to evangelise, to say that God does not take from us but rather gives us more," she said.
American presidents coming to Rome to learn the art of soft power. Nuns evangelising to notes of Alicia Keys. And Italy’s high street, the so called Via Nazionale, is now even more awash with crucifixes, dangling in the cleavages or inked upon the chests of the young. If religion is pop then Pope Francis has gone platinum.
David Plaisant is an associate producer for Monocle 24.