It is a long time since I last heard about a television programme with a pang of regret at having missed it, but I do rather wish I’d caught Pope Francis on the Italian talk show Che tempo che fa on 6 February. Of course, had I done so, I would then have been wishing that I understood spoken Italian, so the regret is a tad on the vain side. But at least I would have been present, sort of, to witness a momentous first in this pontificate, and actually no less present than the host, Fabio Fazio, who was conducting the interview remotely from Milan.
It is not just out of deference that I imagine the Holy Father as the one who was physically extant, there in the Vatican, while broadcaster and audience merely beamed in; it is also because I find the idea of all three elements launching into the ether and meeting in a somewhere that is nowhere at all too spooky to contemplate. And if you’re thinking that the audience doesn’t count, that they – pushing nine million of them – merely observed, as though looking at a photograph, a glorified video-call between the anchorman and his honoured guest, think again. For the importance of audience participation in this extraordinary media event was stressed, live on air, by the Pope himself.
I am indebted to the Catholic News Agency for the following translation, with which I am not in a position to quibble, but I can’t for the life of me see how the gist could have altered from the original. It seems that at one point, in a conversation that lasted an hour, the Pope said:
“Pray for me, I need it. And if some of you don’t pray because you don’t believe, don’t know how, or can’t, at least send me good thoughts, good vibes.”
So, there we are, as it were. And there is enough going on in those few words to put everything else he said that evening – about war, climate, you name it – into the shade.
Imprimus: the Holy Father is appealing to his live TV audience for their prayers, because he needs that act of devotional love, of will to the Father, as much as anyone else.
Secundus: an entertainment bombshell like the Pope appearing on live TV is going to draw a lot of viewers, some of whom, no doubt, will be unbelievers; but he invites them to join in supporting him, as well, appealing to their secular sense of the supernatural – thoughts and vibes somehow “sent” – and thereby demonstrating how their woolly telepathic goodwill is, in fact, prayer in denial.
It reminds us that for every soul who hasn’t heard the voice of God, there are a hundred who are just sticking their fingers in their ears. And as for those who don’t know how to pray, or can’t, the Pope is effectively saying, “Yes, you do, and you can.”
Tertius: Believer or not, could anyone who missed the live broadcast and merely watched the recording really think that the opportunity to pray, or “vibe”, for the Pope had passed? Hardly. So the connection for which he was asking isn’t even dependent on an electronic link in real time, thrilling though it must have been for all those Italian-speaking Catholics who were able to share it.
It should come as no surprise that the Pope is able so casually to juggle fundamental concepts of time and space in this way, theological reflection being a large part of the papal job description. But to go on television, not just as an exercise in direct communication (or, worse, PR), but to exploit this secular and often loathesome medium in all its modern complexity as a metaphor for the grace and presence of God, is pretty smart.
As for me, I am more than happy to pray for His Holiness (because we all know exactly how to do that, don’t we?). And if my unbelieving friends want to say I’m sending him good vibes, I’ll let it pass. My problem is believing in television. Thirty years ago I was reviewing TV for the Telegraph, and then wrote about it, along with other media, for this very paper. But then years of living abroad, coupled with gannet-diving standards in British broadcasting, broke the habit. I am a lapsed viewer. How odd it would be if the Pope brought me back into that fold.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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