So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

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