Ever since Pope Francis became the leader of the Catholic Church last year, the mainstream Italian press has gone nuts. Soon after his designation, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the Pope's real name) was dubbed a “revolutionary”, a “rock star”, a “super hero”, a “cool guy”. He was also proclaimed to be a living saint for performing a miracle only a few hours after his investiture on March 2013 – managing to make Rome’s public transportation work properly (for a couple of hours, at least).
This was just the beginning. After having suffered Pope Benedict’s media-antipathy (although his red Prada shoes made regular headlines), the Italian journalism industry couldn’t believe their luck when they realised there was finally a pope who could ride the bus, carry his own bag and who wasn’t immune to the flu. That nun who made headlines for her performance on the Italian version of The Voice last week? She'd be nothing if Francis hadn't paved the way for the notions of Church and celebrity to coalesce for the first time.
This unholy union moved on to another plane on the 5th of March: After having scored a number of magazine covers, Pope Francis could finally take pride in a weekly magazine focusing entirely on him. The magazine is called Il mio Papa [My Pope], and has been marketed as “the first weekly magazine devoted exclusively to Pope Francis”. Il Mio Papa's editor is Aldo Vitali, who is also behind Italy’s best-selling TV listings and celebrity news magazine, TV Sorrisi e Canzoni [TV Smiles and Songs], while it is published by Mondadori – one of the main publishing companies in Italy, owned by the family of former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
According to the official press release, Il mio Papa “has a positive and popular point of view, with colourful layouts and highly emotional pictures”. Mondadori has high hopes for the publication, with three million copies to be printed in the first month, and a communication plan that includes banners in St Peter’s square in Rome.
In his first editorial letter, Vitali explains his choice to launch a new weekly magazine (basically going against everything we know about the financial trends of print journalism): “The Pope never stops – every day he surprises us with his firm decisions and his unpredictable gestures. People feel he’s very close to them.”
But it doesn't stop there; he goes on to address the readers: “If you are reading these lines it means that we have something in common: An admiration and deep appreciation for Pope Francis.” Il mio Papa, he continues, aims not so much to “celebrate” Bergoglio, but to “help him spread his message”.
Strangely this was predicted over a year ago, when, last March, the website Mother Jones came up with a parody of Tiger Beat (a US "fan mag" for teen girls) that featured Bergoglio on the front cover. Unfortunately, this time reality is much worse than satire.
Leafing trough the first pages, you soon realise that the magazine is very easy to read. The tone of the articles is more or less the following: “The Pope always hugs the children passed on to him by the parents"; “Often mothers ask for a kiss for their child and the Pope is always surrounded by crying pupils, happy to be next to him”; “Pope Francis shows his enthusiasm to the devotees, and the Vatican square becomes everyone’s home”; and so on.
The best part is of course the “highly emotional pictures”, which copy the style of those in tabloids. The only difference is that instead of photos of D-list celebrities groping other D-list celebrities in taxis, in this case we have Pope Francis “walking among the happy crowd” in St Peter’s square.
The following pages deal with breaking news (the production of a TV series inspired by his life in Argentina between 1976 and 1981, “when he opposed Jorge Rafael Videla’s regime, helping the underprivileged”) and current affairs, such as a sermon against war. His incitement is distilled by the author in this sentence: “The Church needs priests, not conspiracies.”
After the “political” section (boring), ll mio papa advises readers on how to enjoy the Angelus prayer (“you can see the Pope better from the first quarter of the square, on the right”) and offers glimpses into the Pope's personal life, who has “declined to live in the Papal apartments” and “prefers to live in a hotel room”. There’s also a map of the Papal apartments that looks like a children's book illustration.
For 50 cents (40p) – that’s how much the 68-page magazine costs – readers can also treat themselves to a pull-out centrefold poster of the pontiff, which could decorate “your room or your place of work”, so that, “the Pope's smile and prayers will always be with you”.
Towards the end you'll find a photo story about the Pope’s first year in Vatican, in which you can spot the selfie he took with some kids in August 2013, captioned “A technological pope”. The reference to technology appears again a few pages later, with a practical guide on how to sign up to Twitter in order to “receive Francis’ messages on your phone (It’s easy and free)”.
Page 55 is by far my favourite. Headlined “Francesco Helps Us”, it maps out the distinct components of the Pope’s “five finger prayer” [for an English explanation of the five-finger prayer, click here].
Even if it's more serious than your standard gossip magazine, Il mio papa remains a magazine dedicated to recreational and spare time. In fact, there’s also a “My Pope crossword puzzle”.
Finally, all the pages are dotted with ads clearly addressed to what you'd imagine would be the stereotypical Il Mio Papa reader: “'Kilocal Woman' helps you fight the gain of weight;” “Wake up your bowel and fight constipation;” “Re-charge your bowel with good bacteria;” “Hypoacusis increases the ageing of the brain cells.” (Basically, they're assuming the people reading this will be fat, ill and old.) There are also ads for seating aids, hearing devices, beauty creams and weight-loss products that make “your legs look like when you were 20”.
After reading the whole magazine a question crossed my mind: What does Pope Bergoglio think about this magazine? Judging from this interview with newspaper Corriere della Sera, he is not very happy. In it, he says that he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a superhero or a rock star, because he is still a man that “laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”
According to Vaticanist Sandro Magister, “Francis is a Pope that doesn’t need to be spoken about or interpreted in any way.” While that might be true, it seems he's a "happy news" goldmine that the Italian and international press are more than willing to exploit.