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The Pope's Newspaper Goes 'Pop'

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If The New York Times was known as "the Gray Lady" of journalism for its staid appearance, then L'Osservatore Romano could justifiably have been called "The Dowager Queen."

The semi-official newspaper of the Vatican was so dedicated to reprinting papal speeches, in black and white across huge broadsheet pages, and so diligent in its adherence to the Vatican's party line in its articles, that most people just referred to L'Osservatore as the Pravda of the Catholic Church -- a disparaging comparison to the old Kremlin mouthpiece.

Still, times change. Pravda is a tabloid, the NYT prints in color, and now L'Osservatore Romano -- the Roman Observer, founded in 1861 to defend the church and promote the pope -- is turning heads with a new editor, a major redesign, and above all such a regular stream of commentaries on popular culture that readers might wonder if they are looking at People magazine rather than the papal digest.

And it's not all pursed lips and blanket condemnations. Yes, L'Osservatore knocked "Avatar" for "a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature." But it also panned the movie as "rather harmless" because the story did not stand up to the remarkable imagery -- a criticism cited by any number of reviewers. Filmmaker James Cameron "tells the story without going deep into it, and ends up falling into sappiness," the Vatican daily's review said.

But in December the paper printed a thoughtful appreciation of "The Simpsons" on that show's 20th anniversary, praising the snarky animated series for its "realistic and intelligent writing" and noting that the program's regular treatment of religion could be the basis of a "Simpsonian theology."

"Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong," L'Osservatore said. "But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well."

Last May the Vatican newspaper stunned everyone -- and likely disappointed Ron Howard and the folks at Sony films, who were looking for a controversy -- by describing "Angels & Demons," the movie version of the Dan Brown thriller that had infuriated many Catholics for its descriptions of the church, as "harmless entertainment." An editorial called both the film and the book "rather innocuous" and a review said the film was "pretentious" but had "dynamic direction" and "splendid photography" with "magnificent" computer recreations of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel.

And in 2008, in an essay marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' White Album, L'Osservatore praised the Fab Four for what it called their "unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words" and said the White Album remained a "magical musical anthology." As for John Lennon's infamous brag that the band was more popular than Jesus Christ, the pope's paper excused it as "showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success."

Perhaps the most interesting foray into pop controversy came last July when the newspaper gave the latest Harry Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," an enthusiastic four-star review, saying it promotes values of "friendship, altruism, loyalty and self-giving." Conservative Christians have often blasted the Harry Potter novels for promoting the occult, but L'Osservatore said the books make clear "the line of demarcation between one who does good and one who does evil, and it is not difficult for the reader or the viewer to identify with the first." That judgment was notably different from a 2003 verdict by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the Harry Potter books "are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly." Two years later Ratzinger, was elected Pope Benedict XVI and became de facto publisher of L'Osservatore.

So what the heck in going on here?

One answer is that Pope Benedict isn't quite the stick-in-the-mud that many people think. Yes, he's an 82-year-old German theology professor who plays classical music on his baby grand and doesn't know how to work a computer. But he also knows that as pope he needs to reach out to everyone, especially young people, and he's willing to let others who know popular culture better than he engage youth on their own terrain.

Also, Benedict's second-in-command, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is the churchman who really oversees the day-to-day operations of the Holy See and he is a member of the Salesian order, which is known for its focus on evangelizing young people.

"Both the pope and the cardinal obviously were hoping for L'Osservatore Romano to become more engaged in the news and ideas of the current culture," said Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. "These topics hardly ever deal with Catholic doctrinal questions, so it was never considered a high-risk strategy."

Yet by drawing more eyeballs to the newspaper through articles on popular culture, Mickens said, L'Osservatore "could more easily become a vehicle for spreading the teachings of the pope and the Vatican."

Making the Vatican daily more appealing has been a longtime ambition of many outside the Vatican. In 1961, in a talk marking the centenary of L'Osservatore, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan noted that L'Osservatore had no coverage of theatre, sports, finance or fashion, not to mention cartoons or puzzles "or of anything that would seem to capture the curiosity, if not always the interest, of the so-called general public."

The newspaper's articles, Montini, said, "are so carefully crafted, so sanitized, so dignified as to shelter the reader from any shock or thrill in the titles and in the texts, as if one wished to train him in serenity and good mental hygiene. A serious newspaper, a grave newspaper; who would ever read it on the tram or at the bar, who would ever strike up a discussion about it?"

The answer was hardly anyone, except for diplomats and journalists and churchmen, which is in part why circulation dropped from a high of 60,000 down to a few thousand in recent years. Still, change seemed more dangerous than keeping it the same. When Cardinal Montini was elected Pope Paul VI he didn't improve the newspaper he himself thought boring, and John Paul II was his own best spokesman, so there was no need.

But today, with few advertisements and more than 100 employees, the newspaper loses about $6 million a year, according to Catholic News Service. L'Osservatore is also facing the same struggles to find a readership as the rest of the media.

With that in mind, the Vatican in 2007 brought in a 55-year-old church historian and commentator Giovanni Maria Vian as editor and sent the 76-year-old Mario Agnes into retirement. The newspaper still publishes every word the pope says, and it has one weekly edition in English and several other languages. But under Vian's direction the newspaper has been slimmed down and made easier to read. Coverage of Italian affairs has been reduced, and graphics have been added (judiciously, of course). And for the first time the newspaper is including interviews and commentaries, some of them from women and non-Catholics.

The new-look L'Osservatore has even generated a fair amount of controversy inside the church for articles on disputed aspects of bioethics or, during the 2008 campaign, for Vian's measured but clear praise for Barack Obama at the same time many American church leaders were blasting the Democratic candidate.

But above all it is the newspaper's coverage of popular culture and entertainment that has drawn notice, and may be the daily's salvation, if any "dead-tree" publication can in fact survive.

Next up in that campaign must be a long-awaited revamp of L'Osservatore's Web site. As it stands now, L'Osservatore is doing a bang up job covering popular culture, but it's hard for anyone in popular culture to find it.
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