On a recent walk to the Vatican's vast auditorium near St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis was said to be astounded not so much by the adoring crowds that have become a near-permanent feature of his superstar life, but by the seemingly endless number of television trucks clogging the basilica's southern flank.
The trucks are packed with gear to broadcast Sunday's unprecedented canonization of two popes – John Paul II and John XXIII – during a mass that will be conducted by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square. The broadcast itself will be unprecedented too: The images will be zapped to audiences around the world in ultrahigh-definition resolution (known as 4K) and in 3D.
While the Vatican may be one of the world's oldest – and most hidebound – institutions, its exploitation of mass media to spread the gospel and, not incidentally, to capitalize on Francis's phenomenal popularity, is thoroughly modern and sophisticated.
The 4K and 3D broadcasts are designed to immerse viewers in an event that should rank as the Vatican's biggest spectacle since John Paul's funeral in 2005. "The 3D will help viewers imagine themselves at the event, as if they are in the square itself," Monsignor Dario Edoardo Vigano, the director of Centro Televisivo Vaticano, also known as Vatican TV, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Father Vigano, 52, expects the broadcast to be seen by about two billion viewers, more or less matching the estimated audience of the opening ceremony in February of the Sochi Winter Olympics. The audience in St. Peter's Square itself, and along the wide boulevard that stretches from the square to the Tiber River, will almost certainly reach 250,000, with another million or so tourists and pilgrims in Rome watching on huge outdoor screens scattered throughout the city.
What the Vatican does not know is whether its attempt to turn the world's smallest state into (briefly) the world's biggest broadcaster will go off flawlessly – no 3D transmission on such a grand scale has been attempted before – or whether the effect will be mesmerizing or simply annoying. "This is a big test case for Vatican TV," said Rev. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt + Light Television, Canada's Catholic broadcaster.
Vatican TV, which has only 23 employees and an annual budget of €2.4-million, is in no mood to take big technological risks on its own. It has recruited Sony and Rupert Murdoch's three European pay-TV broadcasters – BSkyB, Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia– as partners. The Sony-Sky team will cover the canonizations with 38 cameras, 13 of them 3D, and the images will be sent to nine Eutelsat satellites – "more satellites than the Sochi Olympics," Father Vigano said. While the high-definition broadcast can be seen by anyone with a flat-screen TV, viewers who want the 3D experience will have to go to one of several hundred cinemas around the world with 3D technology.
The Vatican has been captivated by mass electronic media for decades. Vatican Radio was founded in 1931 and Vatican TV was created by John Paul in 1983, five years after he was elected pope.
For Vatican TV, the breakthrough event was John Paul's funeral. Instead of the shaky black-and-white images from afar that had characterized TV coverage of papal events in previous decades, the funeral treated viewers to an intimate experience as the cameras followed the removal of John Paul's body from the Clementine Hall, in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, through St. Peter's Square and into the basilica. It was the first time that audiences were able to follow a pope's funeral rites in their entirety.
Sunday's double canonization will no doubt be a visual pleasure if the creativity that characterized Father Vigano's direction of Benedict XVI's exodus from the Vatican last year is any indication.
Father Vigano, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and ordained in Milan, was recruited as Vatican TV boss in January, 2013, only one month before Benedict announced his surprise resignation. He was hired, apparently, to inject some entertainment value and artistry into the often bland Vatican broadcasts.
Father Vigano is a film nut. He has a doctorate in the history of cinema, has been a professor of cinema and media studies at various ecclesiastical universities and is editor-in-chief of Rivista del Cinematografo, Italy's longest-running, and very secular, cinema magazine.
He is a fan of Federico Fellini, to the point that his direction of Benedict's departure was inspired by one of Fellini's greatest films, La Dolce Vita. The 1960 film opens with a shot of two helicopters, one of which carries a statue of Jesus from the outskirts of Rome to the Vatican. At one point, the helicopter flies over St. Peter's Square as church bells ring.
Father Vigano's playbook was similar. When Benedict left the Vatican for the last time as pope, he was carried away in a white helicopter, which gave Benedict his final tour of the city's landmarks, including the Vatican and the Colosseum, before it landed at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence in the hills just outside Rome.
In an interview last year, Father Vigano said the helicopter lift-off symbolized Benedict's "point of no return, or like the cut of the umbilical cord."
His coverage of the conclave that elected the Argentine Cardinal Mario Jose Bergoglio as pope was equally mesmerizing. The highlight was when the Vatican TV cameras' wide-angle lens caught the freshly minted pope from behind, allowing viewers to see both the pope with his outstretched arms and the enormous crowd below, lighting up St. Peter's Square like an enormous Christmas tree with their mobile-phone lights.
"Cinema and the church are not far away from each other, because cinema and angels – both of them – are made of light and movement," Father Vigano said.
For his part, Father Rosica said Vatican TV under Father Vigano has understood that "the future of religious broadcasting lies not in demanding more dedicated religious programming but in creating programs that inform, educate and entertain."