Zidane, Pope Francis and La Mamma

July 2006, FIFA World Cup Final: Italy beat France on penalties. World Cup matches in Italy are great media events where everybody stares at the screen with religious commitment. While in the U.S. it is pretty common to see houses displaying the American flag everyday, Italians usually wave the Italian flag only during football matches, occasions that inflame them with a patriotism rarely found in other times. Italians still clearly remember the last World Cup success in 2006. However, the match is remembered also for another reason: at the 110th minute of the match, the French player Zinedine Zidane was issued a red card after head-butting the Italian player Marco Materazzi. This action seriously compromised both the outcome of the World Cup Final and Zidane’s career as a soccer player. Why would Zidane do such a thing during one of the most important matches of his career? Apparently, Materazzi harshly insulted Zidane’s mother.

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For Italians, French and Mediterraneans in general, very few things are as sacred as La Mamma (or, for Zidane, La Maman). The event touched two fundamental attributes of Italian identity: soccer and La Mamma. Transported by the joy of being World Champions, Italians found themselves facing a dilemma: should we blame Materazzi for offending Zidane’s Maman, or can we forgive him in the name of a soccer victory? The debate around what Materazzi said to offend Zidane, complicated by the different versions offered by the two soccer players, inflamed media in Italy and France for months.

I immediately thought about the 2006 World Cup Final while listening to Pope Francis’ press conference on the flight from Colombo to Manila in January 2015. Even if Pope Francis declared in different occasions his love for soccer, what associates him with the Zidane’s case is the attachment to La Mamma. Pope Francis commented on the recent terroristic attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo saying:

‘Se il dottor Gasparri, che è un amico, dice una parolaccia contro mia mamma, gli aspetta un pugno. Non si può provocare, non si può insultare la fede degli altri.”

(In English: “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri [the organizer of papal journeys] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”)

The sentence brings up some perplexities among Catholics and non-Catholics. How could the Pope not condemn violence? However, while many media extrapolated only this part of the interview, Pope Francis’s discourse was more articulated. He likely found himself facing the same dilemma as many Christians and, in general, religious people of all faiths. On the one hand, it is necessary to condemn murder and defend human rights within democracies. On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo was often disrespectful not only with Islam, but with many other religions as well (As shown by many cartoons ). Pope Francis condemned violence and expressed support for Paris, tweeting for example the hashtag #PrayersforParis. However, he could not deny that the victims of the attack, atheists belonging to the French political left-wing, would probably laugh at the idea of the Pope praying for them. An editorial of Charlie Hebdo after the attack clearly states the newspaper’s position about the Catholic Church:

 Nous voudrions aussi envoyer un message au pape François, qui, lui aussi, « est Charlie » cette semaine : nous n’acceptons que les cloches de Notre-Dame sonnent en notre honneur que lorsque ce sont les Femen qui les font tinter.

(In English: We would also like to send a message to Pope Francis, who “est Charlie” also, this week: we only welcome the bells of Notre Dame ringing in our honor when it is members of Femen who make them resound.)

While people worldwide manifested solidarity saying #JeSuisCharlie, Pope Francis cannot certainly identify with Charlie Hebdo and its model of freedom of expression.

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During his press conference, Pope Francis articulated his discourse saying that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are both fundamental human rights. However, he needed to recognize that the two rights sometimes do not go well together. He said that the limit of freedom of religion is not to offend, kill or start a war in the name of a faith. The limit of freedom of expression is that you cannot offend others, as the example of cursing la mia Mamma (my mom) explains.

Regardless of the ideological position of Pope Francis on the terrorist attack, his metaphor underlines how his way of communication is straightforward, appealing to people and different from the more elaborate speeches of his predecessors. Talking about La Mamma is very powerful in a Mediterranean context. Making a parallelism between “offending my mom” and “offending the faith of others” is not so strange among some cultures: many Italians, for example, consider La Mamma almost as sacred as their religious beliefs (and, of course, their soccer faith). Such a powerful example would probably make the audience think about the terrorist attack in another perspective: of course #JeSuisCharlie, but what would I do if someone offended my Mamma?

Media often address Francis as a revolutionary Pope that changed the message of the Catholic Church. Analyzing his discourses, what strikes as innovative is the way he speaks and how he presents his message to the audience. He uses both concrete actions and metaphors to explain complex concepts. Condemning violence while criticizing cartoons that are openly anti-Catholic is somehow what was expected from the Pope; the novelty relies in the metaphor he used to appeal to the audience.

Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis used the examples of his actions to explain the principles of the Catholic Church. He refuses to live in luxury in order to tell Catholics that they should live in poverty. He hugs disabled children and adults to express the need of love and compassion. He frequently meets with families to show his commitment to others. It is possible to find different meanings in these actions: support for the traditional family, critique to other members of the Catholic Church, even condemnation of abortion. However, instead of articulating these discourses, Pope Francis shows them with his actions.Featured image

Furthermore, Pope Francis uses many metaphors in his speeches, like the one about his mother. In one speech, for example, he talked about the need of “sowing our religious testimony”. He said that Catholics need to be “real shepherds, smelling of sheep” instead of just “combing their sheep”. In occasion of his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where many migrants from Africa lost their lives in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean, he said that “we are living in a bubble of illusions and trivial priorities”, and that leads to a “globalization of indifference” (here in English). These speeches, like others he did in the two years of his papacy, are not revolutionary for their content, but they powerfully stick in the mind of the audience for the images they evoke.

The metaphor of La Mamma follows the pattern of communication that characterizes Pope Francis. Instead of limiting himself in saying that one should respect other faiths, he chose an example that personally affects, and even disturbs, a large part of his audience, Catholic and non-Catholic. He clarified the perplexity his sentence brought about: it is always important to “turn the other cheek”, but, in the meantime, we are all human. Therefore freedom of expression needs to consider that an offense should expect a human reaction. With La Mamma metaphor, he embraced the discourse that, while the Paris terrorist attack was a tragedy, the cartoonists were irresponsible in carrying on certain provocations.

In conclusion, the controversial sentence Pope Francis used to describe the attack against Charlie Hebdo is probably part of his communication strategy. He is often straightforward, employing metaphors like “shepherds smelling of sheep” and “bubble of indifference”. In doing so, he simply but clearly states the Church’s positions on matters like freedom of speech. It would be interesting to ask Pope Francis what he thought about the Zidane – Materazzi head-butt, which, being a soccer fan, he probably watched. After all, Pope Francis has Italian blood and he would never forgive an offense to his Mamma. 

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