The Chocolate Pope, Or How the Vatican Stole Easter

By Philip L. Tite

On February 5 Mirco Della Vecchia, an artist who specializes in chocolate art, presented a life-size statue of Pope Francis to the Pontiff. According to media coverage, this was a labor of love produced by the artist and twenty of his students (from the Accademia de Maestri Cioccolatieri) over a thirty day period.

Chocolate Pope

I was drawn to this news story not simply because I have a fixation on chocolate (I do!) but because I’m currently teaching a course on food and religion at Seattle University and thus my eyes keep picking up instances of “digestible” religion. In my course, we not only look at food as an object that is used by religious people, but as a verb within interactive moments of alignment wherein people take on “religious” identity markers. (I am indebted to one of my brilliant students for her articulation of this point as a noun/verb contrast.) Often food serves as a conduit in which social relations are established, contested, affirmed, or denied. The objects (physical and/or discursive objects) take on significance, while contributing to such significant moments, because they are discursively activated, normalized, and internalized. Reification of concepts is not a simple, linear process, but rather is an ongoing interactive process of discourse. Thus, objects – as building blocks for discourse – are politically charged products with continual effects upon social constructions, which, in turn, shape further “objects” around which discursive moments coalesce. Moments of commensality certainly utilize food objects in just such verbal capacities.

Commensal barriers arise in such “verbal” moments. As Claude Fischler puts it, the sharing of food (i.e., the sharing a table/eating in groups) “has been shown to signify (or create) intimacy.” Indeed, to touch the same food “indicates greater closeness in personal relationships” (Fischler, “Commensality, Society and Culture,” Social Science Information 50.3-4 [2011]: 533). Yet, commensality not only aligns social actors as members of an in-group, it also, by default, aligns other social actors as an out-group. These alignments, however, need not be dichotomous. Among the Gadaba of Orissa in India, for example, sacrificial rituals (the pat kanda sacrifices) align social actors into three groups along degrees of relational closeness to insiders (and deities). The meat consumed signifies these relational boundaries: the “head meat” (tsoru) is eaten by the “earth people”, while the affines consume the neck of the animal (the sano tsoru “junior tsoru”), and finally “body meat” (lakka’*) is consumed by a diverse, distant group. Along with food, there is spatial distance from the shrine based on which group one belongs to. Thus, commensality reinforces hierarchical relations in this particular setting (whereas hospitality codes among the Gadaba, such as with a birth or wedding, promote equivalence between social actors with rivalry arising within such commensal relations) (on the Gadaba, see Peter Berger, “Feeding Gods, Feeding Guests: Sacrifice and Hospitality Among the Gadaba of Highland Orissa (India),” Anthropos 106 [2011]: 31-47).

So what does any of this have to do with a life-size chocolate Pope? Often food objects, when rendered verbs, will carry symbolic significance for social actors. Symbols tend to point beyond themselves to deeper values for social actors, often with analogous meanings rather than direct or literal connections to the actual objects. Thus, we find food as a sacramental object (such as in the Eucharist) or an image for spiritual healing (i.e., redemption; such as we find in the 4th century text from Nag Hammadi, the Authoritative Teaching, where “food” is given to heal or restore the fallen female principle). With the chocolate Pope – or more accurately, with media presentations of the chocolate Pope – a set of floating values are evoked and solidified by this object for the viewer.

Pope Francis has become a bit of a celebrity since his election. Indeed, he’s a darling of the media. His stance on various social issues and his humble self-presentation have certainly been highlighted by the media and absorbed by the general public(s). This statue of the Pontiff, however, presents in a playful fashion the very values attached to Francis. Descriptions state that he “got a sweet surprise at the Vatican on Wednesday”, which is called a “labor of love” (the Daily News). In another news article we read, “the chocolatier intends to donate another 1.5 tons of chocolate to the umbrella Catholic charity organization Caritas, so more can share in the sweet moment” (Huffington Post). Here we find ties to charitable giving and “sweetness” (linked to the chocolate). An inclusive commensal moment is portrayed, where “more can share in the sweet moment”. Certainly a playfulness arises as well, where, for example, the Huffington Post closes: “No word on whether Pope Francis has eaten his Cocoa Papa yet.”

All of these elements portray values that have been attached to Pope Francis over the past year. Thus, the Pope is characterized – via his chocolate simulacrum– as promoting inclusivity, charitable concern, and, therefore, he has become an object of adoration. This pope, therefore, is a “sweet” guy. But what might be the meaning picked up by the characterization of sweetness?

Chocolate – and sweetness – has arisen elsewhere in connection with Pope Francis. The Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano reports that on March 26, 2013, at a Mass celebrated in the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis delivered to the priests, “a large chocolate Easter egg with the papal coat of arms.” This presentation followed a sermon on the “sweet forgiveness of Christ” (based on John 13). The priests in attendance were described as a “priestly family, to which the Pope said he felt that he belonged.” The large chocolate Easter egg, not unlike the large chocolate statue, discursively links Pope Francis to ideas of divine mercy and fictive kinship relations that cut across hierarchical boundaries. Such may be some of the symbolic currency being attached to this statue, at least within media presentations. And certainly for the vast majority it is through the media that the current Pontiff is most vividly characterized.

But what about commensality? With the Easter egg, the food object symbolically conjoined the local clergy, but what about the papal statue? While I doubt that the cardinals are breaking “chocolate” (rather than bread) with this effigy of Francis (though the image is fun to visualize!), I do think that the commensal boundaries of this event are far more dynamic and far reaching than that of the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae. My introduction to the news story about the chocolate Pope was through my news feed on Facebook, specifically the AAR Food and Religion group. Others would have learned of this through my sharing of this item on my own Facebook page. From there, my knowledge extended though web searches to news stories, conversations with colleagues, and finally this blog posting. The social boundaries constructed through a food item are online networks. The boundaries are permeable, decentralized, and open to a wider range of interpretative input (e.g., even this blog posting is an act of such input, albeit within an academic community rather than through a confessional venue). While online presentations may attempt to shape the values to be received, within the social boundaries generated by the chocolate Pope story there is no formal structure guiding or limiting such reception into “normative” streams of commensality. Rather, we have informal networks of commensal relations, where we each take a unique – though interlinked and thus interdependent – “bite” from the chocolate statue; a “bite”, alas, that is only figurative.

Regardless of the formal or informal set of relations evoked, alimentary processes are certainly at play. What those alignments will be – and how they contribute to broader alignments with papal authority and religious identities – is undetermined. As we keep our eyes on such stories as the chocolate Pope, I would encourage my colleagues to track moments of alignment, value presentation/contestation, and diverse group interactions. What are the communal barriers, if any? Do people use the chocolate Pope to reinforce equivalent or stratified social relations? How might humorous or playful moments be utilized to validate or invalidate “religious” structures? Does Pope Francis, as an object of authority and veneration, serve as a focal point for constructing/shaping “religious” identities?

Not only should we look at media presentations (as I’ve touched on above), but we need to look at social networks such as Facebook where people “share” and comment on these stories, as well as comment sections on websites. These informal moments of interaction are perhaps where we encounter real people performing, or living out, their religious (or even non- or anti-religious) identities. Let’s look for discursive acts of alignments, especially within the plethora of online communities.

Of course, the real question relates back to Easter. This upcoming April, will children find themselves chewing on chocolate eggs and rabbits (with or without the papal coat of arms) or will they be chomping down on a chocolate Pope Francis in hopes of a dental miracle? And will such consumption of religion be solid or hollow? Is the Easter Bunny now out of a job? Participant-observer research may be necessary this spring.

Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington and also teaches at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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