ROME – Amid the vast digital ferment caused by coronavirus quarantines, one of the most interesting Catholic storylines has to be a 26-year-old priest in northern Italy who became a YouTube sensation, and who’s now even brought a famed Italian rapper into conversation about the oft-unheralded good done by the Church.
Ordained just two years ago, Father Alberto Ravagnani is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milan, in the part of Italy hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. He’s an associate pastor at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Busto Arsizio, about 35 miles north of Milan’s city center, and is also responsible for working with local youth at an oratory dedicated to St. Philip Neri.
Ravagnani was a natural choice for the gig, since he’s young himself and uses their argot. Yet he was never a huge social media adept; at the time a nationwide lockdown was decreed on March 8, he didn’t even have a YouTube account.
Yet sensing that YouTube videos would be a good way to keep in contact with youth from his oratory, Ravagnani began recording roughly five-minute lessons on various subjects – “Finding Your Vocation,” “Why Pray the Rosary?”, “Faith and Science,” and so on. They’re simple, mostly close-ups of Ravagnani wearing his Roman collar and talking to the camera, but they feature scores of rapid cuts from one facial expression and quick soundbite to another, in the fashion of a slickly produced TMZ report about Justin Bieber.
Ravagani’s videos quickly went viral, with each one garnering about 50,000 hits, and his new YouTube page has amassed 75,000 followers. He suddenly was featured in every newspaper in the country, even ending up in the pages of Famigilia Cristiana, Italy’s most widely read newsmagazine.
In short, Ravagnani turned into that most quintessential form of 21st century celebrity, the “webstar.”
As it happens, Ravagnani is also a big fan of an Italian rapper named Fedez, and thus got excited earlier this month when Fedez released a new single called “Roses.” Ravagnani tripped up, however, when he came across a line in the song taking shot at the Catholic Church for its child sexual abuse scandals.
It’s a very Italian reference, but the line goes like this: “Meglio bimbe di Conte che bimbi dai preti.” Literally, the translation is: “Better the little girls of Conte than little boys by priests.”
“Conte” here means Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister of Italy, who’s considered a handsome guy by some young Italian women who swap pictures of him on Instagram, and they’ve come to be known as the bimbe di Conte. Many Italians find the whole thing silly and annoying, so in context Fedez was saying even that’s still better than young boys abused by priests.
Obviously Ravagnani got the idea, because he quickly took to Fedez’s Instagram page to post a message – claiming that at the time, he had zero expectation he’d ever get a response.
Here’s what he wrote:
“Hi Fedez, I’m a priest and a fan of yours and while I was listening to your latest, ‘Roses,’ I came across a passage. The tone of the line about priests is provocative, and we can’t hide that there have been scandals. However, as always, one tree that falls down makes more noise than an entire forest that grows. There are so many priests who do excellent work, with incredible commitment, and no one talks about them. You’re an influencer, and people listen to you: Together, we could lift up a much greater good. I’d be happy to invite you to hear from my kids what they’ve seen and what they’ve encountered in the experience of several priests we’ve had here. I thank you for your music, but if we could manage to do something together it would be great, because our kids truly have very positive experiences.”
Not long thereafter, the rapper actually responded.
“I’m sure that, like you, there are lots of priests who do great work in the community,” Fedez wrote. “I myself had a Catholic education. You guys are great pawns on the chessboard, but behind you there’s a state that contradicts the spiritual narrative. The Vatican was too often indulgent with priests who abused, moving them to other parishes. I don’t want to attack you, and those who work like you. But in the Vatican, someone gave the OK to bury Renato De Pedis, boss of the Magliana band.”
(The reference to De Pedis is an allusion to the fact that after De Pedis, a notorious Roman mafia boss, was assassinated in 1990, his widow got special permission from the Vicariate of Rome for him to be buried in a crypt in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare. Authorization came despite canon 1242 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which clearly states, “Bodies are not to be buried in churches unless it’s a question of the Roman Pontiff or of Cardinals, or, in their proper Churches, of diocesan bishops even retired.” The fact that De Pedis got special treatment inspired endless speculation about who in the Vatican was on the mob’s payroll, even sparking an investigation in parliament. In 2012, De Pedis’ remains were removed and eventually cremated and scattered in the sea.)
The exchange hardly represents a meeting of the minds, but at least it could be the beginning of a very interesting conversation. As for whether Fedez may take up Ravagnani’s invitation to visit his oratory, the young priest is realistic but hopeful.
“It would be very hard, I’m sure,” he said. “But, never say never.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.