When the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote about a statement by Beatle John Lennon that enraged many people in 1966, it unleashed a flurry of reaction in Britain and elsewhere.
Lennon had said his group, The Beatles, were "more popular than Jesus", and following what some papers reported as "forgiveness" from the Vatican for Lennon’s pronouncements more than four decades ago, newspapers were inundated with thousands of letters and on-line blogs, many written by fans of The Beatles.
"I am sure if John Lennon were still alive he would tell the pope where to shove his forgiveness," wrote one fan in a letter to The Scotsman newspaper, published in Edinburgh.
The Lennon-related editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, which is not the official Vatican newspaper but is seen to reflect the views of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, coincided with the 40th anniversary of the release of "The White Album", which contained 31 of The Beatles’ songs.
L’Osservatore Romano noted, "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 paper added, "The talent of Lennon and the other Beatles gave us some of the best pages in modern pop music." It asserted that only "snobs" would dismiss the band’s songs, which had shown "an extraordinary resistance to the effects of time, and had provided inspiration for several generations of pop musicians".
Lennon said in a 1966 interview, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first: rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me."
At the time, Lennon’s comments evoked strong criticism from some religious people in the United States and other countries. Some groups organised public burnings of Beatles albums, some radio stations banned their songs, wile a number of promoters cancelled concerts.
Peter Brown, The Beatles’ personal assistant and manager, and best man at John Lennon’s marriage to Yoko Ono in 1969, wrote in a letter to The New York Times on 24 November, "John’s remark was not a boast or a blasphemy. He was pointing out the absurdity of the Beatles’ fame, which at that point was at its madding zenith. For anyone who knew John Lennon, the observation was typical: indelicate but spot on. He neither sought nor required forgiveness, only understanding."
Lennon was said to have been pressured to apologise at the time, and had been quoted as saying, "I will apologise if that makes you happy." Towards the end of his life, Lennon wrote that he was grateful for the furore because it led to the end of his touring days. He wrote: "If I hadn’t said that The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’ and upset the very Christian Klu Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus."
(c) Ecumenical News International
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