By Virginia Heffernan
I’m here at overcast South by Southwest, the annual tech-music-film rodeo in Austin, Texas. The cool girls are frantically charging their app-heavy iPhones. In their branded ponchos and awesome New Cure jeans, they’re prepping for a panel shortly on female orgasms.
Don’t fret: I have no time to chip off cheap jokes on matters so ... profane. I cannot take my eyes or fingers off a much, much more sacred tech adventure: the Pope App.
I promise I’m not just trying to wrangle #pope and #sxsw—two trending topics on Twitter—into this one piece. Nah, I am just fixated on the work of the Pontificium Consilium de Communicationibus Socialibus. Clever developer name, no? Took lots of focus-grouping; rejected were PONTCN and POHPE.
Pontificium Consilium de Communicationibus Socialibus is a real shop, a dicastery of the Roman Curia, no less, founded in 1988 and dedicated to the proposition that the gospel must be spread, at all costs—by electronic media, if necessary. This should come as no surprise. Unlike other religions—shomer-Shabbas Judaism, no-games hippie’ism—that can get nervous around the conjunction of electricity and holiness, convert-making Christianity has no such qualms.
In fact, the Holy Roman Empire (not holy, not Roman, nor an empire, I know) is credited with having invented the gosh-darn codex—better known to us as the BOOK—just to spread the good word to yokels who couldn’t find their way around a scroll. In the 20th century, the awe-inspiring Global Recordings Network, determined to make the good word intelligible in every known language, even the oral-only ones, created ingenious hand-crank audio technology that plays in deserts and jungles.
So the Word that begins everything continues to drive it all, at least at the Vatican. And if that means a Pope App, well so be it.
The Pope App, a beaut with lucid graphics and lush photography, delivers all the information I need about the pope. Which, these days, is not a little. As some of you may have heard, #pope took a buyout and they have to find a new guy.
While we wait for word from the papal conclave, the photos pour in: cardinals praying in St. Peter’s Basilica; cardinals and more cardinals praying. Are they so prayerful on most days? They’re like the SXSW girls with iPhones—they never look up, even as they’re here, in Austin. The cardinals are ignoring the basilica in the same way. I guess even if cardinals—in their dashing red and black—can’t be here now, then I shouldn’t feel so…
But no, I don’t want just to study pictures or wait for the big news. I also want to read the words of His Holiness Benedict XVI—and all his press releases are here. I do love the one from Feb. 28 where he says he is “happy to be here … surrounded by the beauty of Creation and your kindness, which does me so much good,” and then announces that he’s no longer the Catholic Church’s supreme pontiff but “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on earth.”
Benedict sounds so joyful since he let go of the big job. What a relief it must be to be a pilgrim and not a pontiff—a holy, otherworldly relief known exclusively to this one mortal man. (I have to admit I can’t figure out what happened to those other abdicating popes of prehistory, so I can’t even fantasize about their relief.) How extraordinary to be reading these words on my iPhone, here in Austin.
There’s so much pomp, obviously, attached to the Vatican and the pope. It’s more than pomp; it’s metapomp. It’s so easy to call it ludicrous, so I will. But it’s also mind-bending to think that this outgoing pope, this pope emeritus, this person born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, once envisioned himself called to this extraordinary role—and then stopped envisioning himself this way.
What a bold thing: to make the manically audacious claim at world-historical importance, and then embrace your life as an ordinary human, a pilgrim, once again.
Benedict XVI’s move—with all the high hats and bowed-head cardinals in heavy-metal colors and puffs of grayscale smoke—may be a symbolic move. Certainly, it’s one so symbolic it can even be appreciated by a non-Catholic about to go to a female orgasm panel and peering nervously at a tiny cracker-size screen. But it’s powerfully symbolic.