ROME – When an Italian bishop began singing and quoting pop songs during his homilies, often with a guitar in hand, he immediately became an internet sensation, garnering both applause but also raised eyebrows about his unconventional approach.
Today, as he publishes a new book on “Pop Theology,” some remain skeptical, but his packed Masses, TV appearances and thousands of online views suggest he may have tapped into popular culture’s thirst for spirituality.
“I am still met with a mocking smile on the lips by some of my brother bishops,” said Bishop Antonio Staglianò of Noto in southern Italy, referring to the reaction many clergy have toward his unorthodox “homiletic humming.”
“But I have a strong stomach,” he added jokingly.
Staglianò spoke during a presentation of his book titled Pop-Theology for Youth. Self-criticism of a Conventional Catholicism for a Human Christianity, at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome on Tuesday.
The bishop said he wrote this book to give “theological dignity” to his melodic evangelization, which so far has reached more than 60,000 people on YouTube and over one million on Facebook, and to ask whether there can be “new theological approaches to find youth in the places where they actually are.”
The book includes an introduction by the former head of the Vatican’s communication department, Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, who in the past has written about the deep ties between the word of God and poetry expressed by theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner.
“What impression does Catholicism make if it invites its faithful to Mass, and at the end everything becomes quiet?” Staglianò asked.
“The flame of the spirit sets believers ablaze, the body and blood of Christ are forged there in the sacrament, people feed on Jesus, and then this fire of love immediately freezes as soon as they walk out the door.”
Referring to the title of his book, the bishop said that “a Catholicism no longer capable of communicating Christianity would become a conventional Catholicism,” because even though it practiced its rituals and rites, “the encounter with Christ would not be visible.”
“This book wishes to be an attempt to theologically critique the pastoral experience of the Church and churches, to see if human Christianity can return to its splendor,” he added.
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Staglianò made his presentation with Giuseppe Lorizio, a professor of theology at the Lateran University.
“I don’t know if I’m heretical,” the bishop said, “but this is what I am preaching.” The theologian jokingly answered by dispelling any doubts of heresy, because, he said, “heresy requires genius,” and as far as he could see, “there are no geniuses to be found in this room.”
Lorizio acknowledged that the concept of pop theology is nothing new, and in fact Protestants got there first. “It’s a question of thinking about indifference, living where there is non-belief. Today’s world is not made up so much of believers and atheists, but by believers and by those who believe less,” the theologian said.
“Before this vapid incredulity that surrounds us, we are called to retrace in these [popular] expressions those which we may call seeds of the Word, questions of meaning,” he added.
According to Lorizio there are infinite examples within the general culture of symbols and images drawn from the Bible and especially the Gospel. From the Matrix series to pop music and Harry Potter novels, the story of Christ is just to good to be ignored, the theologian said.
The “Pop Theology” approach has great potential, according to Lorizio. At a contextual level, it helps the Church to understand and interpret “the contemporary religious experience,” which, he said, is expressed in art and popular culture.
He said that often there are “metamorphoses of the divine” that happen within society and being close to these changes allows the Church “to learn how to inhabit these transformations.”
“There is a great desire for spirituality in today’s world,” Lorizio said. “Not finding an answer to this desire, people go into exile. They search for it in Oriental forms of spirituality, esotericism and alternative religions.”
From a Gospel perspective, he said, “Pop Theology” helps the Church understand the cultural value of faith in order to learn how to “fertilize popular culture.”
“Our problem is not evangelizing music,” Staglianò said. “Our job is to find the Gospel in music and allow ourselves to be interrogated by God.”
The only possible objection, according to the bishop, is that some popular music that he hums during his homilies may not have the literary quality necessary to capture “the humanity within humans.”
To this he replied that not long ago, folk singer and pop icon Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. In Italy, the Academy of the Crusca, the country’s highest tribunal when it comes to the purity of the Italian language, recognized the texts of some popular singers to be comparable to the writings of one of the country’s greatest poets, Giacomo Leopardi.
These examples show, the bishop said, that the paradigms of language and expression are shifting, and it’s high time for the Church to catch up.
Concerning the singing, Staglianò said that “quoting the text of a song and humming it are two different things,” the latter being far better when it comes to grabbing people’s attentions.
Finally, Lorizio said that today there’s a new form of communication that requires theological guidance and reflection.
“We must stop saying that before there was a theologian pope, and now there is a popular pope!” he said.
“Perhaps there is a different theology. There is a different way of interpreting Christianity and culture. Maybe this different way needs reflection, needs theology, even more, so that faith may not be reduced to a series of emotions.”
Lorizio admitted that when he proposed having the book presentation before the faculty council of the university, some were against it, and asked: “What are we doing? This is a university, not a beer house!”
The theologian said that, first of all, “there is nothing wrong with a beer house,” and secondly that “the place for theology is not a university, but the community and therefore the city, the Church.”