Is Pope Francis a Punk?

Maybe the alliance between proto-punk goddess Patti Smith and the Pope isn’t so strange: After all, this is a Catholic leader who just ripped into the Vatican for their "spiritual Alzheimer's."

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For a certain type of rebel girl, the Gospel begins not with “And on the first day, God created the Heaven and the Earth,” but rather “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”        

This street scripture is the first line from Oath,” the poem Patti Smith recites as the intro to Horses, her 1975 debut album. Released before punk was even an established genre, there was nothing else like it at the time—a quiet roar from the Bowery’s gutter. The sheer level of brass is astounding when you consider that these words were sung by a then-unknown female artist, in the mid-’70s. As an artistic statement, it skates a thin line between radical feminist theology and blasphemy. As an opening salvo, it is without peer. The poem and the song it kicks off—Smith’s sneering, suggestive cover of Them’s “Gloria”—helped establish her as a downtown deity.

So there was a gasp of collective astonishment at the Vatican’s announcement in November that Smith was one of 18 acts invited by Pope Francis to perform at the Concerto di Natale, which was held at Rome’s Conciliation Auditorium on December 13, and which will be broadcast internationally tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve. Did you ever think a Pope could score so many cool points?

Punk has had a complex, often contentious, relationship with religion since early days, as evinced by a quick survey of band names: The Saints. Christ on Parade. Ludichrist. Shattered Faith. Catholic Discipline. Bad Religion, Agnostic Front, False Prophets, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. And a perversion of “Crucifix” that isn’t fit to print in a mainstream publication.

For all punk’s inherent anti-religiosity, the music engenders near-fanatical devotion from its fans. Ask any misfit kid blasting Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” (“Ain’t no loser!”) over and over again through the ear buds. For many of us, punk isn’t just a type of music. It is salvation.

In a subculture known for its reflexive critique of, well, almost everything, the announcement of Smith’s participation in the Vatican concert generated an unexpected wealth of excitement among my punk-rock cohort on social media. Be it a peace punk, a skate punk, a queer-core kid, or a riot grrl, the news was received gladly. From his nonjudgmental openhearted statements about LGBT people to his proposals to change the church’s stance on divorce and cohabitation, Pope Francis is clearly on the side of progress. And a badass: This past Monday, during his annual Christmas address to the Curia, he denounced malfeasant members of the Vatican bureaucracy as suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” There’s a whiff of radicalism about the guy that old-school punks can’t help but like.         

Perhaps timing is a factor, as well. The alliance of Patti and Pope Francis comes when many of us are reassessing our relationship to organized religion. We’re older now, more aware of life’s frailties and surprising patterns, both good and bad. Maybe we’ve gone from “Gabba Gabba Hey” to “Yo Gabba Gabba,” and our kids are starting to ask about God. Maybe we’ve had some too-close-for-comfort brushes with mortality. Where does faith fit into all of this?

Organized religion is generally regarded in counterculture circles as the province of political regressives and Cracker Barrel dolts, so there’s a little self-consciousness in giving it another look this time of year. Some of us cherry-pick and dodge, ducking out of candlelight services and sneaking chocolate from the Advent calendar windows days ahead of schedule. Some of us do a winking acknowledgement: We listen once again to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and set a stuffed Godzilla atop the tree.

For others, organized religion is emotionally unsafe—a source of trauma, even. My friend Spike, a recovering Catholic turned practicing Buddhist, is doing her own special Christmas Immersion Therapy by posing for selfies with various holiday totems—wreaths, poinsettia, Santa—lurking in the background, like rising Yuletide zombies. She’s trying to make peace with Christmas triggers after years of childhood abuse she suffered in the name of the Lord. So far, so good.       

Paul Tillich famously asserted that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty. Belief doesn’t have to be seamless or without strife. To paraphrase Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, I’d rather have an imperfect faith than no faith at all.

Like most of my peers, I’m just trying to find my way in the world, not run for President of Jesus. As someone who is only now starting to figure out my core beliefs, one thing I do hold true is that spiritual inquiry should be exalted, not vetted.    

Curiously, punk and religion are in similar straits, at least in New York City. In November, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced that 112 of its 368 parishes would be consolidated. Last week, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan proposed the merging of additional 38 parishes, effectively closing dozens of churches. Meanwhile, the city’s alternative music venues have been disappearing. Sacred ground is being lost all around us, transforming beloved third spaces into a chain drug store or a bank seemingly overnight. Our beloved CBGBs is now a John Varvatos boutique.

I fear the march of gentrification the way a polar bear fears the shrinking Arctic ice cap. The sense of vanishing habitat haunts me. Anyone want to join me in trying to have Trash and Vaudeville declared a historical landmark?

Punk hangouts aren’t alone on the endangered list. We’re also losing our punk-rock anthems—to the eddies of commercialism. I used to snicker when Don Henley lamented in song that he “saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.” Sucks to be you, Boomer. Now Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” advertises a cruise line, Acura shills with the Sex Pistols’ cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and The Ramones “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?” thumps in the background of a TV ad for—wait for it—Cadillac.

These anti-authoritarian songs being mainstreamed by big business feels less like a sell-out than a slide toward obsolescence. You’d think it would feel the same to think of Patti—our heroine, our lawless Baudelairean dream girl—keeping company with His Holiness. How much more mainstream can you get than the Pope?

But their alliance seems more like a quirky act of grace, a magnetic meeting between two seemingly opposite cultural forces. Lamb and lioness, pope and punk royalty. The contradiction is pleasing, almost therapeutic. A step on the spiritual journey made not by us, but for us. A reminder that there may be a baby in that murky bathwater, after all.        

Maturity hasn’t made me more conservative. Instead, it has made me more willing to make do, to salvage the good. Salvage and salvation share the same Latin root, salvus, meaning safe. I aim to make faith a safe place, a sanctuary. Even if the search for safety means doubt and debate and countless pauses for reflection. Yeah, well, welcome to religion. Welcome to life.

Sic transit Gloria mundi—worldly things are fleeting. In this city of vanishing cathedrals, knowing that on Christmas Eve the world will see our homegirl Patti perform at the Pope’s behest represents a link to the eternal good and a reminder that while life is full of surprises, not all of them are bad.

We follow our beacons when we find them, by sight, by sound, by any means necessary, searching out what’s left of hallowed ground. A punk-rock Christmas is a wonder of sparkle and grit. May yours be full of only the most joyful noise. 


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