How popes took Church to celluloid heaven

Vatican movie theatre

When Benedict XVI joined Twitter and Francis appeared on Instagram, media watchers may have thought they were witnessing a Vatican revolution. In both cases, however, the pontiffs were merely following in a long tradition.

- Catholic News Service

The Catholic church has a history of taking on major technological innovations that promote mass communication, such as the printing press in the 15th century and radio and television in the 20th. In fact, one of the very first motion picture films ever made was an 1896 reel of Pope Leo XIII.

The brief black-and-white silent movie shows the elderly bespectacled pope sitting with guards and attendants at his side, adjusting his skullcap and blessing the camera.

In another scene, the pope gets off a horse-drawn carriage and walks slowly with his cane to a bench, where he takes off his sun hat, adjusts his glasses and again blesses the camera with long, liquid movements of his frail hand.

It was a blessing, not just to the world, but perhaps also to the birth of this new means of mass communication, said Claudia Di Giovanni, manager of the Vatican Film Library, whose rich collection includes the film of Pope Leo.

Di Giovanni said one of the most media-friendly popes in history was Pope Pius XII, who endorsed and made extensive use of radio, television and cinema. Pope Pius was the first pontiff to star and act in a film, she said, when he let film crews into the Vatican for eight months to capture a sort of "day in the life" of a pope.

The film, "Pastor Angelicus" of 1942, was a great success all over Europe, she said, showing the pope to a public who otherwise would never have been able to see him. Pope Pius did the film, Di Giovanni said, as a way "to be near the world," especially those affected by the still-raging World War II.

"It was a way of showing that the pope wasn't a person who was closed up inside the Vatican but was a point of reference for everyone who looked to him for hope."

FULL STORY How popes took Church to the big screen

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