Thou shall laugh a bit, too

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am

Pope Benedict returned from Turkey last week with his reputation greatly enhanced. He showed political skill and even charm in dealing with the politicians and the imams in the secular, but 99 per cent Muslim, nation.

Now back in the Vatican, he faces a greater test of his skills, intelligence and tolerance: can he show a sense of humour in the face of jokes that his staff do not find funny?

The world surely needs someone who can see God in laughter, even about himself. But the jokes are no laughing matter, at least in the Holy See.

Just before Pope Benedict travelled to Turkey, the Vatican made public its increasing irritation concerning comedians who were making fun of him and of his pin-up-handsome secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein.

The complaints have sparked a national debate in Italy. L'Unita, the newspaper of the largest party in the centre-left government, ran a banner headline declaring, 'The Vatican Can't Take a Joke', and ranked the topic as more important than the imminent bankruptcy of the state railway system.

Francesco Merlo, a columnist for the daily La Repubblica, said that it was hardly possible to resist poking fun at a pope who spends his time in libraries and not with the people.

Indeed, the Pope himself seems to have gone out of his way to attract jokes by insisting on wearing blood-red Prada shoes and Gucci sunglasses. Monsignor Ganswein is so handsome that Italian women have nicknamed him Adonis.

They gossip that the Pope and his entourage would like to get on the covers of international men's fashion magazines.

The Pope might legitimately complain that the comedians are not very funny. One did a skit showing him singing, doing a tap dance and juggling three oranges, then asking: 'Could Pope Wojtyla do this?' - a reference to Pope Benedict's media-friendly predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Another popular Italian TV show has the white-haired Pope Benedict as a capricious egotist who complains about always having to wear white outfits and giggles as he types out excommunication edicts.

His secretary is a ready target. A radio-show comic claims that the papal secretary dreams of being a circus acrobat, but is worried that it might mess up his hair.

Monsignor Ganswein himself said that satire was okay, but it should show more respect for the personalities involved.

The jokes, as presented, 'have no intellectual level and offend men of the church. They're unacceptable, and I really hope they end immediately,' he declared.

Another German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, condemned the satirists for attacking and damaging the image of the Pope and encouraging the creation of 'a society of ridicule'.

I would say to these churchmen: come on guys, please get a life. Yes, you have one small point that you can make - and that is the existence of a double standard: comedians make fun of you but not of Muslim feelings and beliefs.

Islam, after all, doesn't tolerate images or representations of its founder.

But the Catholic Church's strongest claim is its tolerance. It has survived for 20 centuries: far longer than the lifespans of good popes and bad ones - and good comedians as well as the current crop of poor and crude ones.

In the 19th century, satirical poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli described the then pope as 'wined and dined and mellow' in his Rome fortress, ready to bestow blessings or cannonballs on the populace.

Who remembers him now?

It may be invidious to invoke national stereotypes, but it is hard to imagine an Italian pope getting so serious about people poking fun at him.

Or an Irishman: is it time for an Irish pope?

But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Monsignor Ganswein did concede: 'We're convinced that smiles bring religion closer to the people, because a smile is never a sin.'

Go on, monsignor, smile more broadly and laugh at the ugly people who are making envious fun of your good looks and the shining intellect of your boss.

Kevin Rafferty was formerly editor of The Universe, an English-language Catholic newspaper