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Jim McDermottApril 03, 2023
A fake A.I.-generated photo of Pope Francis in a Balenciaga puffer coat (Generated by Midjourney)

Last week was a real papal rollercoaster. On Wednesday, Pope Francis was rushed to the hospital with respiratory issues, never a diagnosis you want to hear, but even more when you’re over 80. But then he ended up not only recovering quickly but spent his time having pizza with staff and hanging out with kids in the children’s oncology unit. He even baptized a baby.

And even before all of that, the pope was all the rage on the internet, after photos surfaced of Francis wearing what looked like a $3,500 Balenciaga puffer coat.

For those not hip to the Z, “drip” means cool or swagger, kind of like when your bling is iced out. (My editors want to make it clear that I might have looked at Urban Dictionary for this information.)

“My sis The Pope in his Balenciaga era,” Twitter user @Viniceo posted. (After extensive education from the younger members of staff of America, I am proud to be able to report that “sis” is a warmly appreciative, “your style is killing it” version of “bro.”)

The pope was all the rage on the internet, after photos surfaced of Francis wearing what looked like a $3,500 Balenciaga puffer coat.

As you might expect, the internet had a field day with the A.I.-generated image, and a million funny takes were quickly in the offing, very much akin to the “Bernie Sanders sits on a folding chair wearing mittens” memes that seized us after the 2021 inauguration.

“[W]hen your mom makes you put on a coat over your halloween costume,” @adamgreattweet wrote as a riff on what the pope looked like in the photo. “Live look at Bank CEOs who kept their balance sheets strong as interest rates rose,” @GRDecter quipped.

Some viewed the widespread acceptance of the authenticity of the image as another sign of the growing power and danger of A.I. “[F]inding out the puffer coat pope pic is AI made me realize i’m not smart enough to survive this new technological revolution,” @grrlcroosh wrote.

But as I followed the conversation what initially struck me is the way in which “Ill Papa” (Thank you,@Joebonitowrites) functions as a Catholic version ofthe dress,” that viral phenomenon in 2015 in which people debated whether a dress in a photograph was black and blue or white and gold. (For the record, it was black and blue. No, really.)

Some explained their initial acceptance of the image as a result of their understanding of the pope as hip and socially relevant. “The papal puffer coat photo is less a story about the increasing realism of AI-generated images and more a story about how deeply everyone wanted to believe that the pope had that much drip,” @TylerMcBrien said.

Like a Rorschach Test, we saw in Pontiflex what we bring to the image.

Others saw in Big Popa (love it,@prof_gabriele) evidence of the Vatican’s excessive wealth.

Like a Rorschach Test, we saw in Pontiflex (so good,@farisalikhan1), what we bring to the image.

But that has been true of Francis from the beginning—and that might not be an accident. Part of what made A.M.D.Gucci (bravo,@hughesaz) so believable was the fact that Pope Francis has given us plenty of similarly wonderful (and sometimes wild) viral moments before.

Who can forget Pope Francis receiving his own honorary super hero mask from a guy dressed like Spider-Man?

Or Pope Francis wearing a clown nose with the newlyweds who do clown therapy with sick kids?

When people talk about the legacy of Pope Francis, as they did earlier this month to mark his 10th anniversary, they tend to enumerate things he has said or decisions he has made. But I wonder if the real long-term legacy of Francis is his insight that images and gestures can be “weaponized” for good. In a world of smartphones and social media, with its endlessly voracious appetite for the unexpected, the emotional or re-memeable, every public appearance becomes a chance for Francis to be a beacon of God’s love to nearly everyone on the planet. His gesture may be as intimate as washing the feet of a mother and child on Holy Thursday or as massive as leading a televised pandemic prayer service in a completely empty St. Peter’s Square, which he did three years ago this week. The impact is the same—and lasting.

But these memeable moments in which the pope participates also are a way he tries to challenge us. They bring into the light and question our underlying beliefs about the papacy, the church or even God. As much as I personally love “Clown Nose Francis,” I have got to believe some people found it disconcerting, if not really upsetting, to see the vicar of Christ look so silly. Popes do not wear clown noses. Except sometimes, they do.

At times, these moments also make us aware of some of our inadequacies. As a human being, I’ve been enormously inspired by Francis. But as a priest there have also been many times that his actions have made me question my own. Why aren’t I that brave? Or generous? Or just plain energetic? He chose to use an emergency trip to the hospital as a chance to be a source of encouragement for others. Would I have done the same?

But I think this is all part of Francis’ project, just as it was part of Jesus’ project. It is in having the darker movements within us drawn to the surface that we are able to be free of them. You can’t be a disciple until you confront that you’re a sinner.

Pope Francis didn’t wear Balenciaga. I can’t imagine he ever will; it is not in keeping with the simplicity and humility with which he understands the role of pope. But if we keep our eyes peeled, it won’t be long before we see him do something just as eye-popping to reveal once again to us the challenging, merciful love of God. In fact, last week after his hospital scare he did just that.

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