John, Paul, George, Ringo – and Benedict

Vatican newspaper tribute to the Beatles strikes an odd note at a troubled time for Rome

The headline on the fake news story in a circa 1978 issue of National Lampoon, if memory serves, went something like this: "John Paul Elected Pope; George Ringo Miffed."

The joke was good for a laugh, but not just because of the wordplay: the absurdity of juxtaposing the biggest youth pop culture phenomenon of all time with old-time religion in a magazine born of the counterculture took the gag beyond a one-liner.

The farcical news story came to mind this week as the Vatican's official newspaper offered its own almost equally surreal declaration that John, Paul, George and Ringo are finally okay with the folks who gave us Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – even if England’s Fab Four were wildmen who might have dabbled in the “satanic.”

"It's true, they took drugs; swept up by their success, they lived dissolute and uninhibited lives," L'Osservatore Romano declared in a weekend tribute to the Beatles. "They even said they were more famous than Jesus and put out mysterious messages, that were possibly even satanic…

"But, listening to their songs, all of this seems distant and meaningless," the newspaper said. "Their beautiful melodies, which changed forever pop music and still give us emotions, live on like precious jewels."

The lofty pronouncement is a mixed blessing that raises some admittedly disparate questions: Who cares what they think? What took them so long? And don’t they have more important issues to deal with right now?

The first thing that inevitably comes up in discussions of the Beatles and Christianity is John Lennon’s 1966 remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. That he intended the statement as a commentary on youth and religion, and not as a boast, didn't stop some very un-Christian-like behavior, such as death threats and record bonfires in the U.S. Bible Belt.

The Beatles embarked on various spiritual journeys as a group and individuals, searching for meaning in meditation and Eastern religion, among other places. But their simple message of peace and love, delivered in song, is hard to argue with, no matter what your faith or lack thereof.

The tribute, timed to the anniversary of the group’s breakup 40 years ago, follows praise from the paper in recent years for Revolver and the White Album, and what amounted to forgiveness for Lennon’s comments. That’s all well and fine, though Lennon didn’t need – and probably would have scoffed at – absolution for speaking his mind.

That it took the Vatican decades to catch up with the positive impact of the Beatles serves as a reminder how out of touch Rome can be at times – especially as the papacy is embroiled in a controversy far more serious than whether or not a pop group was a force for good.

"Didn't the Vatican say we were satanic or possibly satanic – and they've still forgiven us?” Ringo Starr told CNN. “I think the Vatican, they've got more to talk about than the Beatles."

Perhaps he has a point. Or maybe he's miffed the tribute came from a Vatican headed by Pope Benedict – and not Pope George Ringo.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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