Jim McDermottSeptember 24, 2021
Pope Francis is pictured at top left on a television screen as he leads a virtual meeting of his Council of Cardinals from his residence at the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican Sept. 21, 2021. (CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)Pope Francis is pictured at top left on a television screen as he leads a virtual meeting of his Council of Cardinals from his residence at the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican Sept. 21, 2021. (CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)

Pope Francis met on Tuesday with his seven cardinal advisers and council secretary to discuss the upcoming 2023 global synod. The Vatican released photos of the meeting, which occurred via Zoom.

If you are not familiar with what a Zoom meeting looks like, imagine reenacting the opening of “The Brady Bunch” but for hours. (Also, are you reading this from 2019, and if so, take that vacation RIGHT NOW.)

The pope’s council meeting gave a fascinating glimpse both into the lives of these men and their Zoom game.

As meetings held by video conference have so often done the last year, the pope’s council meeting gave a fascinating glimpse both into the lives of these men and their Zoom game. Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras wins the award for humility for working out of what looks to be the staff lounge. Cardinal Besungu of Kinshasha clearly knows how to craft an image that is visually interesting without being overwhelming. (Also, way to stand out with that beautiful shirt!) And Cardinal Marx does a fantastic job of creating a sense of mystery and tension. I don’t know what that dark thing behind him is—a “War Games” WOPR perhaps?—but it is clearly a major part of where Cardinal Marx’s story is headed and I am a little bit afraid.

Recognizing that it seems very likely that Zoom, too, will always be with us, and also that synod planning will involve many meetings like this, I would like to offer a few suggestions to improve the cardinals’ overall experience.

Center yourself in your screen. Cardinal Bertello, I get it. You are here for a meeting; as long as they can see your head, who cares? Personally I admire your refusal to accept the artifice of the medium. Also, your facial expression is so much of everything that we all feel on every Zoom call at this point that it should be its own meme. You are definitely a shepherd who really does know the smell (and exhaustion) of his sheep!

Cardinal Bertello: I admire your refusal to accept the artifice of the medium.

Generally speaking, though, you want to have the camera positioned so that people can see that you also have a torso. I know, it’s ridiculous. Of course you have a torso. Who do they think you are, St. Denis?

But don’t go losing your head over it, it’s also super simple—just tilt your screen down a bit.

Consider using a background. Cardinal Parolin, you do a great job of putting yourself in the center of the screen. You are also clearly listening and invested. Excellent work.

But can we talk a moment about your background? I have never been to the Secretariat of State, but I must say I did not expect it to exist in a formless void. I do love the idea you might be implying that the Secretariat somehow sits outside of all creation, or that long before Abraham was, the Secretariat of State am.

But honestly, staring at a blank white space is a little bit terrifying. Have you ever considered using a Zoom background? There are all sorts of fun and creative options: for instance, you could be at the beach, waves rolling behind you, which might make the whole experience more relaxing for you and your peers (while also quietly inducing their envy). Or you can choose a view of the Earth from space as your background, and keep that “The Secretariat is Above All” vibe going.

Cardinal Parolin: can we talk a moment about your background?

You can even get playful and add a filter that makes it look like you are wearing a little party hat or have cat ears. Our managing editor currently uses a background of animated fruits gleefully throwing paper airplanes around a colorful classroom. It is a never-ending source of conversation. Cardinal Marx, imagine the delight you could bring to the group with a filter like this. Priests of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Remember, Francis has said he prays for a sense of humor every day. Why not be the instrument of God’s answer?

If you don’t want to use a digital background, consider your real background. Bishop Mellino, you look deep in prayer. It is enormously edifying, a polite spiritual invitation both to your confreres and those of us watching at home. And it would be even more so, if not for the fact that I think you might have left your bathroom or hallway door open. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, but perhaps you might consider prevailing against an open gabinetto.

(CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)
(CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)

Make Sure Your Identity is Clear. It is always fun looking at how everyone introduces themselves—who puts cardinal as their first name, who inserts it as their middle name, who doesn’t use it at all. One thought: in a meeting of seven cardinals, a bishop and the pope, to simply identify yourself as “cardinal” may not be quite clear enough, Cardinal O’Malley. Consider the example of Cardinal Gracias, who made the wise decision to not identify himself simply by his last name and thus leave you all wondering why he keeps posting “thank you” after everything you say.

Also, Cardinal O’Malley, while I appreciate the practicality of Zoom on your phone—you can do the call anywhere, even while walking around the house!—it also creates a pretty serious found-footage horror movie vibe.

(CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)
(CNS photo/Dicastery for Communication)

Consider your screen size. Pope Francis, first of all, as someone who has a fraught relationship with his inbox, it was gratifying to see that even a pope can have 347 unopened messages. Once again you inspire me. To all those waiting for a reply from me, please take it up with the Lord’s Emissary on Earth.

I also love your intensity. You’re staring into that screen like Argentina is playing Italy in the World Cup. You’ve even got a bottle of Sambuca waiting on your desk. (I admit, this joke would work much better if I was better acquainted with clear Argentine liqueurs. Mea culpa!)

I must say the whole TV-on-wheels thing reminds me a bit of those days in grade school when the teacher was too tired to teach and showed us the filmed stage version of “Cats” as an “educational video” instead. (Okay, the teacher was me and the students were high school seniors, but in my defense it was the end of the year and they said they loved it.)

I would like to offer one suggestion, Holy Father, if I may: Next time move the screen a bit closer to you. Currently the camera’s distance from you is making you look a bit small in the frame. For a moment I worried you had passed through a looking glass, and wondered whether the Vatican was built not only for spiritual giants but actual ones.

I don’t mean to be critical of any of you—honestly, who am I to judge? And Your Holiness, obviously you don’t want to look bigger than everyone else. Even for one who is the pontifex maximus, that maximus shouldn’t be taken too literally on a video call. When people say your feet don’t quite touch the ground, I want it to be understood that this is a statement referring only to your great holiness and not the height of your chair.

With assistance from America staff.

Correction, Sept. 25: Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga is from Honduras, not Nicaragua.

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