The recent comment touted by some media outlets as the Vatican’s forgiveness of Beatles legend John Lennon is not quite the papal pardon many think it to be.
When L'Osservatore Romano marked the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ White Album last week, it dismissed as a "boast" Lennon's 1966 claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
"The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll," the Vatican’s daily newspaper wrote.
As innocent as the newspaper’s statement was, a number of media outlets worldwide brought the statement into the spotlight with headlines proclaiming “Vatican ‘Forgives’ John Lennon,” “John Lennon Finally Forgiven by Vatican” and a few going as far as claiming that the Catholic Church or even the pope himself had finally forgiven Lennon.
But church historian and Catholic commentator Paul Collins points out that the opinions printed in the paper do not necessarily reflect those of the pope.
"It is checked on by the Secretariat of State, I suppose we would call it censored by the Secretariat of State which is really the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet within the Vatican," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"But while its articles on theology would certainly be taken as representing the Vatican's point of view, something like this John Lennon article sounds like a bit of a colour piece, as we would call it in Australia," he added.
CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci also shed light on the newspaper’s comment, sharing in her blog on Tuesday the story behind the article.
“So how did the story come about? Simple: the editor and two other colleagues, all Beatles fans, found themselves one day humming ‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da life goes on bra…’ in the corridors of the Vatican-based newspaper,” Vinci reported after visiting the newsroom of L'Osservatore Romano.
And as the song was included in the Beatles’ White Album, which this Nov. 22 celebrated its 40th anniversary, the Vatican journalist thought it was a good opportunity to write something about the band.
“But what about that spat 40 years ago? Oh, that, yeah right… nah, not a big deal,” Vinci depicted the journalist as saying.
“Little did he know his story would make the world’s headlines.”
This past summer, Lennon had also made headlines after an interview that was recorded in 1969 aired on BBC Radio 4's “Sunday” program.
In the interview, conducted by Ken Seymour of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when Lennon was at the Bed-In for Peace protest in Montreal, Lennon said his notorious 1966 statement was misunderstood.
"It's just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ," he explained.
Many Christians familiar with the incident today, however, note that his claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was less disturbing than his comment that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.”
In the 1969 interview, Lennon also claimed to be “one of Christ’s biggest fans” and that the Beatles were always “on the side of Christ.”
He blamed "the hypocrites" for being too "uptight" in reacting to his comments.
Experts, however, have argued against the claim, noting that while Lennon was fascinated by the life of the historical Jesus, bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr didn't have particularly strong religious feelings and George Harrison increasingly leaned toward Eastern religion.
“The Beatles started out as atheists and agnostics and I think as everybody knows they became more interested in spiritual things,” Steve Turner, author The Gospel According To The Beatles, told CNN. “ They went out to India in 1968 and I think in a way the Beatles became a spiritual force themselves.”
Lennon did return to the Christian faith for a brief time, announcing to close friends in the spring of 1977 that he'd become a born-again Christian. He was later “saved” from God by his wife, Yoko Ono, who “had again become the captain of his soul, the mistress of his destiny,” as Turner wrote in his 2006 book.
Lennon eventually announced that he was a "born again pagan."