The Met Gala is What the Vatican Has Been Waiting For
Whoever said, “All publicity is good publicity” clearly never tried advertising with the Roman Catholic Church. The Church has been in and out of the papers for roughly two millennia now and it has seen nothing but decreasing membership in recent years. A liturgical facelift is long overdue and perhaps this year’s Met Gala is exactly what the doctor ordered.
I am your typical Cradle Catholic. I was born and raised in the Church, attend not only mass but also Bible study every week, actively participate in my college’s Catholic organization; the list goes on. But statistic after statistic reveals that I am one of a dying breed. Gallup reports that only one in four young Catholics are active churchgoers, 11% lower than the same age group in Protestants. And according to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), of those who have revoked the Catholic label, nearly 80% are under the age of 23. To be honest, you do not need to look far to supposedly figure out why.
The Church is musty, old, and quickly going the way of parachute pants and the perm. The habit and cassock look like Halloween costumes, and incense feels less like reverent perfume and more like second-hand smoke. The image of Catholicism is what most millennials are not: traditionalist, strict, pompous. And don’t even get me started on the organ.
While Pope Francis has done a remarkable job adapting the Church for 21st century audiences in what little wiggle room he has, the Vatican could never possibly change enough to appease the masses. A parish made to remedy all of the antiquated ills would look less like a Catholic Church and more like a Chuck E. Cheese. But what if all of these problems could be fixed without changing a single thing at all?
Enter: The Met Gala
The quality of the Gala’s theme varies from year to year. Calling the 2015 theme “China: Through the Looking Glass” appropriation would be a gross understatement, while the following year’s theme “Manus x Machina: Fashion in Technology” was a smooth success. I’ll be honest. When I heard this year’s theme was going to be “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” I was uneasy to say the least. It was impossible to count the number of ways this could go wrong, the number of ways influential people could mock, criticize, and scorn the Church with the world as their witness. I was even more surprised to find out that the Vatican had given its sacred stamp of approval. But, boy, did they know what they were doing.
The final product resulted in a series of attire and photos that “good publicity” cannot begin to describe. There was every pope and saint you know and love: From Zendaya’s divine interpretation of Joan of Arc adorned with silver mesh armor to Chadwick Boseman’s unsullied rendition of the clergy complete with papal regalia and insignia, no stone was left unturned. Even Madonna, infamously at odds with the Vatican, paid tribute to the Church with a black veil and golden halo. Nearly every look was inspired by and modelled after “musty” ecclesiastical robes. Everyone did homage to the aesthetic of the Church, thereby validating its traditions even in the modern age.
Those among us who were justifiably concerned about Catholic appropriation, the condescending picking and choosing of a culture’s dress and traditions according to what is fashionable by mainstream society, might find solace in the words of Cardinal Timothy Dolan announcing that he “didn’t really see anything sacrilegious.” By all accounts, he and a select few other priests invited to the Gala readily enjoyed their evening among Hollywood’s elite.
Moreover, the Gala spotlighted some of the Church’s most underrated spokespeople. The night gave Donatella Versace, George Clooney, and Jimmy Fallon, among many others, to candidly discuss their relationship with the faith past and present. Yes, some things were far from positive, but an opportunity for Catholic celebrities to talk about their religion is not something the Church should pass on. Even while there was clearly no official doctrine or canon espoused, the Church received a comprehensive one-night endorsement from every personality that most organizations would kill for: Rihanna, Nick Jonas, and Katy Perry to name a few. The Gala allowed the Vatican to appear hip and cool without having to change its appearance. Instead of framing the traditions of Catholicism as a weakness, it has shifted the public eye into embracing it as a strength.
Even the undoubtedly snide costumes or outright rejections of the Church brought to light important discussions. Lena Waithe’s gay pride cape underlined the maltreatment of the LGBT+ community at the hands of the Church, but in a way, it also highlighted the efforts in recent years to reach out and mend the broken relationship. It is symbolic of a much larger conversation that Vatican officials need to be having, and it might even represent the real change that the Church needs to consider. Not the cassock or the incense or the organ. But instead, it points to the congregation. In fact, some studies argue that modernization as we know it has actually hurt the Church and that young people are drawn to the time-tested tradition that permeates Sunday mass. For the Roman Catholic Church, modernization does not mean abandoning tradition or religious imagery. It means embracing the millennia-old quirks, appreciating a new perspective of the Catholic identity, and paying attention to the heart of the Church: the people.