Hidden away in south-west Florida is the extraordinary Catholic town of Ave Maria. Built on the outskirts of the city of Naples, the college town has a towering Oratory church at its centre. A 30ft sculpture of the Annunciation sits above its majestic doors. The town is a miniature Catholic paradise, with a Catholic university and local shops selling icons and devotional books.
Ave Maria owes its grandeur to a rather humble substance: pizza. The community’s founder, Tom Monaghan, is the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, a chain which he sold in 2004, investing the profits in this singular project.
Monaghan is not the only famous Catholic with a passion for pizza. In recent months it has become clear that Pope Francis himself is a bit of a pizza addict. Even the satirists have noticed his keen appetite for the foodstuff. “Along with ordering pies for delivery to the Popemobile, Pope Francis has started eating pizza for every meal … and has made it ‘illegal’ to give up pizza for Lent,” claimed the comedy site Above Average.
Francis first hinted at his fondness for pizza last year, in an interview with the Mexican television station Televista. Asked if there was anything he didn’t like about being Pope, he said: “The only thing I would like is to go out one day, without being recognised, and go to a pizzeria for a pizza.”
Then, during a trip to the original Naples, a pizzeria owner took pity on him and decided to present him with a personalised pizza as Francis cruised through the crowds in his Popemobile. The Pope looked delighted to receive it.
This summer the Pope has been busy sharing his love of pizza. In August he treated 10 homeless people in Rome to a trip to the beach, topped off by a visit to a pizzeria. And after the canonisation of Mother Teresa this month, he invited a further 1,500 homeless for a slap-up pizza lunch at the Vatican.
The most obvious explanation for this intense interest in pizza is that it is hereditary. Francis’s father was Italian and his mother had Italian roots. Pizza possibly evokes happy childhood memories of the Bergoglio kitchen table, with the whole family gathered around chatting, laughing and eating Mama’s homemade pizza.
But what if there is a more complex explanation? Could it be that Francis is consciously exalting a food loved by working people the world over? A cynical PR man would no doubt point out that Francis’s pizza obsession does no harm to his “man of the people” image.
Yet despite the counsel of brilliant spin doctors and advisers, many leaders have tried and failed to communicate their humanity through food. One only has to recall the excruciating incident in which Ed Miliband attempted to eat a bacon sandwich in a greasy spoon café but ended up looking as if he was chewing on a compost heap.
Francis, on the other hand, has made no such gaffes, which suggests that his love for pizza is the real thing.
Even so, I still like to think that Francis is subconsciously attracted to pizza because it is the cuisine of egalitarians. After all, with pizza everyone gets an equal slice and it can be made with the simplest of ingredients: wheat, tomatoes and cheese and maybe a touch of basil and oil. It is a merciful comforter for the lonely person eating a meal for one on a cold autumnal night. It is the food of love: circular and infinite. It is the meal of peace-making, bringing friends back together again after a row. With so many virtues, pizza is not only the obvious favourite dish for Francis, but also for all Catholics.
“The pizza is round and it is essentially bread, loved by poor and rich alike – it is a great social leveller, just like the Eucharist,” says moral theologian Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith. He suggests that the Pope is doing so much for the pizza-makers that they should present him with an honour that will last for the ages.
“Given that one of the most famous pizzas in the world is named after Queen Margherita of Italy – she hated cheese – isn’t it time for some enterprising pizzaiolo to create Il Francesco, a pizza that reflects the Pope and his love for the poor and the marginalised?” he asks. “It might be a pizza that is cheap to make.”
Maybe it is only a matter of time before we see the Il Francesco popping up on menus in Rome. Should any enterprising chef require some tasting trials before the pizza’s launch, I am more than happy to volunteer.
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