ROME – Recently Inés San Martín of Crux brought to my attention a notice in PC Gamer about a Polish software developer who’s announced a new computer game called “Pope Simulator.” Apparently it opens with a conclave in which the player is elected pope, and then presents various scenarios that require decisions.
“Our idea assumes the possibility to use, among others, the pope’s so-called ‘soft power,’ and consequently influence the fate of the world and interfere in international politics,” Ultimate Games CEO Mateusz Zawadzki said announcing the game.
A spokesman for Ultimate Games told me they’ve spent about $72,000 developing the game and that they haven’t set a price yet for it, which is projected to launch in 2021 for PCs and later on consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation, but probably the price tag will be in the range of $9 to $19.
I got a laugh, because my experience over more than 20 years is that a free version of “Pope Simulator” – admittedly without a slick graphics interface – is already the favorite indoor sport of the Catholic Church, and has been ever since I can remember.
Almost every Catholic, it seems, has an opinion about what the pope should do or not do. Especially in the social media age, folks also have ready platforms for expressing those opinions. In addition to reporting on the actual pope, a lot of our time on the Vatican beat is spent covering potential “Pope Simulator” adepts with a following and a cause.
The thought came to mind over the weekend as I read a new open letter to Pope Francis from Fra Massimo Maria Civale, a Catholic from Naples who’s the “Grand Prior” of the “Christian Knights Templar of Jacques De Molay.”
(As it turns out, there’s a sprawling galaxy in Italy of Catholic groups which, in one way or another, identify themselves as heirs to the Knights Templar of the Crusades. Most are small, though one branch has a following in about 50 Italian dioceses and holds an annual spiritual retreat in the Vatican, complete with the white robes and red crosses of the Templars of yore.)
Civale’s letter was a request to Pope Francis that he “reopen the churches” around the world, meaning issue a directive that all priests are to make it possible for anyone who wants to receive the Eucharist physically to do so despite quarantine measures in place due to the coronavirus.
He began by saying government decrees in Italy suggest churches can be open if they respect hygienic and sanitary measures necessary to contain the pandemic, and thus the Knights are “saddened by the dispositions of closure adopted by Italian dioceses.”
“We, Poor Catholic Knights of Christ, desire to fight the good fight of the faith for receiving the Eucharist, which is at the center of our spiritual life,” Civale wrote.
“The spiritual communion we receive with the means of communication is no longer enough,” he said. “We need the living and true body of Jesus for the salvation of our souls.”
“In that regard, we ask you to invite all the dioceses of the world to reopen the doors of the churches and every priest to provide Eucharistic corridors in respect of hygienic and sanitary norms, so that every believer who desires may receive the Bread of Life,” Civale wrote.
I single out this letter only because it arrived in my inbox at the same time I saw the announcement about the game, but similar communiques come and go all the time.
To be clear, in principle there’s nothing wrong with them. Canon law says Catholics have the right to make their needs known to their pastors, and Civale was less pushy about it than many. He even closed his letter by telling Francis, “we love you and will do everything we can to be witnesses to the Risen Lord.”
At one level, such fascination with how a pope deploys his authority is a tribute both to the papacy itself, which somehow remains keenly relevant despite centuries of secularization, and to modern popes, who’ve offered compelling examples of how inspired use of the office can still move mountains.
(It’s no accident, I suspect, that “Pope Simulator” was developed in Poland, where a whole generation remembers the role of St. John Paul II in the dissolution of the Soviet empire.)
At another level, this popular drive to tell the pope what he should do is also a tribute to the ardor of ordinary Catholics, many of whom are passionate about the Church and feel called to push it to realize the best version of itself, however he or she may understand that.
Since “Pope Simulator” apparently won’t be commercially available for at least a year, we’ll have to wait a while to boot it up and take a virtual spin in the Popemobile. When that moment comes, however, it might be worth reflecting on a couple points.
First, there’s a world of difference between playing pope and actually being pope, one of which is that a pope can’t just switch off his screen when he gets frustrated or bored. He’s still got to make decisions, whether he feels like playing or not. Second, if you want the real experience of being pope, try playing the game with at least 100 people in the room whispering in your ear about what to do, and thousands more sending nasty tweets about whatever you end up choosing.
If you still think it’s fun … well, now that video games may be included in the 2024 Olympics, you could be well on your way to a gold medal.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.