ROME – One certainly can’t accuse the Vatican of being part of what Italians call the “no vax” crowd, meaning resistance to the Covid-19 vaccines. Not only did the Vatican nip a Catholic form of such opposition in the bud recently by signing off on the morality of the vaccine, but on Saturday the Vatican announced that its own personnel will begin receiving the vaccine in the second half of January.
A statement from Andrea Arcangeli, director of the Vatican’s office for health and hygiene, said the Vatican has acquired an ultra-low temperature refrigerator to store the vaccine, and that injections will be delivered in the Paul VI Audience Hall, beginning with health personnel and those with greatest contact with the public, as well as the elderly.
The one question the statement did not address, however, is whether Pope Francis will receive the vaccine. That question has been put to Vatican spokespersons on multiple occasions since the advent of the vaccines, who have maintained a steadfast silence on the grounds that it’s a matter of the pope’s “private life.”
A similar tone was struck last March, when Pope Francis pulled out of his annual Lenten retreat on the grounds of having a cold, and many wondered if it was actually Covid. At the time, a Vatican spokesman insisted the pope did not have Covid, but he refused to say whether the pontiff had been tested – leaving one to wonder, obviously, how they could be so sure he was Covid-free if he hadn’t.
This longstanding fetish about preserving the pope’s privacy comes to mind in light of a new documentary set to premier tomorrow night on the Italian network RaiTre called “Solo Insieme,” meaning “Only Together,” about the pontiff’s previously private outings on Fridays once a month to visit private homes, prisons, hospitals, families, former prostitutes, migrants and refugees and recovering drug addicts, which began as part of his Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015.
It was announced at the time Pope Francis was making these visits, but there was never any press coverage because they were characterized as “strictly private.” It turns out, however, that Francis had a camera crew from Vatican TV following him all the while, and now that footage has been turned into a glitzy new documentary written by a celebrated Italian screenwriter with the assistance of well-known Vatican reporter Orazio La Rocca.
The voice-over comes from an Italian actress named Nicole Grimaudo, who’s sufficiently famous here that she was once chosen to replace Antonio Banderas in TV commercials for the Barilla pasta brand. The title of the film is a reference to Francis’s celebrated March 27 Urbi et Orbi address in an empty St. Peter’s Square, as Italy’s coronavirus pandemic was at its peak, when he said, “We can’t move forward on our own, but only together.”
These visits were always unannounced, in order to avoid a mob scene wherever Francis went.
Outtakes that have been released ahead of the film’s premier tomorrow night feature several moving scenes, including one where a teary-eyed Francis encounters a group of ex-prostitutes rescued from the street by an Italian Catholic movement known as the “Community of Pope John XXIII” and tells them he wants to “humbly ask forgiveness for the violence that you suffered, including from people who call themselves Christians or Catholics.”
At another moment, we see a playful Pope Francis joking that his security team may have been too tired for it, but when a family called asking him to come, he said yes. The nonna (grandma) who answered the door was so dumbstruck she couldn’t really speak except for uttering “My God!” as tears began to roll down her face. Francis is seen reaching out to give her a playful smack and then a hug.
It’s not that there’s anything inappropriate about the Vatican lifting the veil on the pope’s privacy like this. On the contrary, watching the pope practice the corporal works of mercy in such a moving way is inspirational, and may move countless people to do likewise – especially when, as expected, the documentary is translated into other languages and makes its way around the world.
The fact Francis consented to being followed around by TV cameras doesn’t makes these gestures insincere. Instead, it means he’s accepted the hard truth that pretty much anything he ever does for the rest of his life will become public sooner or later, so he might as well try to squeeze some evangelical good out of his exposure.
However, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that the Vatican is awfully selective about when to invoke the pope’s “private life” as a reason for refusing to provide information, given that they’re obviously willing to set aside that privacy when it suits their purposes.
Moreover, one could also argue that the same potential for evangelical good applies to the vaccine question. The reason so many other leaders have taken their shots in public, including President-elect Joe Biden in the US, is precisely to inspire others to do the same, and many Catholics might be swayed by knowing that the pope too is getting the shot.
We’ll see how the Vatican chooses to handle the information flow when the injections begin later this month. In the meantime, tomorrow night’s broadcast on RaiTre, among other things, offers a reminder of the double standards that sometimes come into play navigating the boundaries between public and private when popes are involved.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.