What did the Vatican just Google? A satirist speaks

pope francis shadow The silhouette of Pope Francis during a meeting with King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium in the Apostolic Palace on April 26, 2014. | Vatican Pool/Getty Images.

Last fall, amid swirling headlines about synods and still-emerging sex abuse scandals, an odd account popped up in the newsfeeds of "Catholic Twitter."

This account, calling itself "Vatican Just Googled" and at the handle @VaticanGoogles picked up a very specific beat: tweeting church-related posts in the form of satirical Google searches from Pope Francis or other Vatican staff. Among its first queries were "follow jc go app pokemon good idea or not" and "how to reform the church."

The account gained a quick following after its appearance on October 26, and was lauded by some Catholic Twitter users:

The humor came after months of renewed scandal in the Church, surrounding heavy issues like sex abuse, accountability, and power structures. It offered mostly quips about ecclesial news and daily life as imagined in the Vatican (one post sought results for "uber eats pasta rome"), among other jokes.

The mysterious user behind the account didn't shy away from a growing audience. The anonymous poster replied to followers, posing yet more search queries to them, and using pictures of different facial expressions from Pope Francis to respond to Twitter threads.

Some users began to ask who was behind the account.

Even the account itself asked about its identity.

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CNA decided to find out the story behind the satire. Vatican Googles is Samuel Harris.

Harris is a stay-at-home father of three and a graduate student living in the Bay of Plenty area in New Zealand (in addition to @VaticanGoogles, he also tweets as himself under @SamHarrisStory). When CNA traced @VaticanGoogles to Harris, he agreed to a chat - and at long last, he agreed to be revealed.

Through the account, he's "having a laugh, and if other people like it, that's great."

Harris carefully describes his angle as "gently affectionate satire."

"I wanted it to have a bit of bite" when he was developing the account's approach, he said, particularly in light of the scandals.

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He made clear that he loves the Church, adding that "what you love most is also what you criticize," he said. And along the way, "I hope that there's a few well-aimed punches that land."

"The lofty aim of satire is a corrective cultural form."

Harris, who is studying creative writing, had been trying to think of a gimmick for a parody Twitter for some time when the inspiration for @VaticanGoogles struck him. Inspired by another popular account, "Aus Gov Just Googled" (referring to the Australian government), he initially tried to make a New Zealand version of the same.

With the framing of his posts as (hypothetical and humorous) Google searches from somewhere in Rome, "the setup is already done, the joke work is done with the name of the account, so then in the body of the tweet you're cutting straight to the punch line." But "Vatican Just Googled" isn't all bite - Harris said he wants the platform to also function as "a celebration of the good things about the Church as well."

Imagining Google searches in the voice of a pontiff or resident of Vatican City entails a sort of cast of characters, and so Harris' project has taken on a sort of role-playing exercise as well.

"It's a story" in some senses, he said. "It's a world with a narrative and characters."

"Stories are really important thing in today's world in terms of evangelizing," Harris reflected. "I think people listen to story, and so social media can be a way of telling stories."

Some of the tweets are autobiographical - knowing Harris' identity explains a couple of scattered New Zealand puns in retrospect - and in a sense, Harris sees himself tied up in the solution to the problems his satire showcases.

"Occasionally there's tweets directed at myself. Some change in the Church is in my hands! Me, to be a better Catholic, to be a saint."

A tweet pinned to the top of the @VaticanGoogles profile speaks to this:

Despite the "cesspool," as Harris termed it, that social media can become, the online platform also serves as a tool for spreading good "if you curate it carefully."

"The Church is alive, and a sign of that is the humor on Twitter."

Catholics on social media are in a position "to highlight the richness of the faith, to highlight that it is reasonable to and possible to live a Catholic life," as well as "to be real and to enjoy a joke."

He also referenced stories he's seen online from people who came to the Church in part by encountering Catholics on Twitter. "How that actually plays out in a person's life exactly, I'm not sure, but you take them at their word. That's a wonderful thing, to discover this world that's not accessible to them in their daily life."

"Humor has a place," he said. "People who don't listen to a sermon might be touched by the humor of a meme."

The conspiracy surrounding his identity finally over, Harris said it's something of a relief to have the curtain pulled back.

"It was getting a bit weird" to him, he observed.

"When you contacted me," he laughed, "I was quite fine with that. It's kind of funny, the sleuthing that went on."

But regular followers need not fear: "I'll just keep on with the same thing," he said. "It'll just be interesting to see how it develops."

"I've got a couple of ideas in the pipeline," he assured. "Looking forward to more laughs."

Joe Slama is a freelance writer for Catholic News Agency.