His Holiness Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, sent the internet into a frenzy after images circulated of ‘him’ stepping out in immaculate (designer) drip. 

At the end of March, an image posted online made headline news after sending the internet into a total meltdown. The image showed a rather fashionable Pope Francis, looking as though he was fresh off the runway, in a white, seemingly Prada or Balenciaga, puffer. Twitter users spiralled attempting to figure out if, one, the image was real and two, when the Pope became so drippy. One person tweeted the image, saying: “Brooklyn boys could only hope for this level of drip”. Even Chrissy Teigen, the former queen of Twitter, tweeted her thoughts. The image became an internet joke shortly after circulation and was quickly meme-i-fied. 

Only a day later, the world would learn that the image of Prada Pope/the vicar of drip/the Balenciaga Bishop, was in fact fake. How, you ask? AI! 

The image of Pope Francis sporting designer was created thanks to Midjourney, an artificial intelligence program. If one were to visit their website and read their short description, one would see that Midjourney describe themselves as “exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species.” The creator of the AI image turned out to be a Chicago native by the name of Pablo Xavier, who was … “tripping on shrooms” when he had the idea to put the Pope in some designer drip. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Xavier remarked: “I try to do funny stuff or trippy art — psychedelic stuff. It just dawned on me: I should do the Pope. Then it was just coming like water: ‘The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris, stuff like that.”

So, what was the Holy Father’s response to his newfound status in pop and internet culture? Mhm, not with such great enthusiasm as one can imagine! 

Pope Francis is no stranger to online fame. Complex has even declared His Holiness as “the most memeable pope in history.” In 2015 and 2017, the Pope found himself as the subject of numerous memes, all depicting him “dropping bars”. In 2019, he was gifted a “happi” which is a traditional coat worn by the Japanese during festivals. The happi featured an anime version of the Pope, to which he gladly slipped on. Delighted by the unique gift; the Pope is pictured smiling as he puts it on. The moment provided necessary comic relief as his visit to Japan commemorated the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings of 1945. The Pope also spoke against nuclear weapons throughout his visit. In 2022, he found himself yet again the subject of some online memes when he sported a pair of custom, vintage Nike Blazer Mid 77s. The yellow and white high tops (the colours of the Vatican flag) were a gift from Father Jim Sichko, featuring the Papacy’s coat of arms and Pope’s name. While it may seem as though these are coincidental memes, the internet politely roasting a funny old man who just so happens to be the Pope, it’s much more than that. Pope Francis is far more popular than his predecessors. His contemporary view on Catholicism and his more liberal outlook have cemented him as an influential figure (likened to Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama) in the world and earned him Time’s “Person of the Year 2013”. 

However, this AI image (while met with the same sort of reaction as other memes with Pope Francis as the subject) was not as pleasantly received by the Vatican or the Pope. The image, which gained a lot of traction, was denounced by the Vatican and the Pope himself. Sort of. 


The Vatican Church

In the aftermath of the AI art, the Vatican released a statement declaring it was not real. They, very aptly, said: “The pope, in summary, does not wear Prada, but Christ.” When addressing the guests of the Minerva Dialogues, an annual tech conference in the Vatican, the Pope spoke about the significance and dangers of Artificial Intelligence. The Pope voiced his support for AI, saying: “I am convinced that dialogue between believers and nonbelievers on fundamental questions of ethics, science and art, and on the search for the meaning of life, is a path to peace and to integral human development.” But he also expressed his concern, ranging from fears that AI would worsen inequality, to the danger of losing respect for one another. “We cannot allow algorithms to limit or condition respect for human dignity, or to exclude compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and above all, the hope that people are able to change.”

While it was light-hearted and created as an earnest attempt to draw a laugh, the deepfake image proves that technology is developing faster than we can keep up with. It has highlighted valid concerns about the spread of misinformation, how easy it will now be to believe inaccurate information and how it can get even the best of us. It has led to uncertainties about how much faith we put in technology, or what is going around on the internet. So in the wake of Prada Pope, what message can we take from it? To be over cautious and distrustful of everything we see or to name Pope Francis as the most debonair papal to grace the Apostolic Palace?

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