Who is the man beneath the robes? A papal investigation into faith, friendship, and tragedy.
Sin in Space: My Audience with the EVE Online Space Pope
"Go forth and spread thy love. And, by love, I mean lasers." This is the story of how a NASA scientist saves lives as a sassy space pope.
The man who has taken on the mantle of Space Pope goes by so many names that sometimes he gets in trouble for it. Out of game, he is Charles White a NASA Knowledge Management Analyst determining how lessons learned on tech like hydrazine tanks and polyamide tape can best be passed onto future astronauts. In-game, he's played industrialist Caldaari admirals amongst others, but he's most famously known as Max Singularity, aka the Harbinger of Faith, aka the EVE Online Space Pope.
To his crimson-cloaked acolytes who silently follow his every step at EVE Online's Reykjavik Fanfest, any other title would be blasphemous. Except, perhaps, "Your Holiness".
You won't be surprised to read that this was my first official papal interview. Interrogating a man in full pontifical regalia might be intimidating were it not for Charles's uncle-like demeanour – enough to put even the most awkward of video games journalists at ease. He answered my first question with gusto despite it being a question he has no doubt been asked more times than you've had Sunday masses – "So, how does one become a space pope?"
His answer? "I had no choice. I literally had no choice."
It started out as a troll, and it ended up a duty.
The Makings of a Space Pope
In 2014 and 2015, seven of his friends committed suicide. They were co-workers, Burning Man companions, and EVE friends. As anyone in that situation would be, he was angry, upset, and overcome by a sense of helplessness.
Aged 55 at the time of these tragedies, he was already a self-confessed "old man of EVE" which is one of the factors that lent to Charles adopting an unofficial pastoral role in the community. His character, Max Singularity, is an Amarrian - EVE Online's empire of zealous religious warriors. Known for being a good listener, it wasn't long before people started making "go commune with the priest" jokes about him, which soon evolved into memes declaring "he's not a space priest, he's the f*ing space pope!".
The reputation solidified then spread at warp speed during 2015's Fanfest when Max turned up in his papal attire as a joke. Except, as he soon discovered, it was not a joke for many. He started receiving emotional requests from EVE players, including one that asked him to bless their new-born child.
Still settling into his cassock, his first instinct was to troll. But it was an instinct he overcame, instead opting to philosophise: "What is a blessing? Who has the right to give one? Do I need a doctorate of theology? No. I just need to do what I do – choose good words."
So, he wrote back, he chose good words, and the requests grew and grew. Some asked him to speak at funerals, some asked him to ordain marriages, and some just asked him for help. Charles, with the weight of the loss of his friends never far from his mind, did it all.
A Space Pope's Faith
Since I'd first heard about the Space Pope, I'd wondered whether a man who spends a good part of his life giving intergalactic communion would need to be a deeply pious, saintly man or a diehard atheist who relishes in the opportunity for blasphemy. So, I asked.
Max was the sort of child who took great glee in asking the devout difficult questions and tying their logic in literalist knots. When his questions flummoxed them, they pointed him towards the bible. Reading it only gave him more ammunition; he would point out that God had to ask Cain where Abel was, whereas Santa Claus was the truly omniscient one – he knew when you were sleeping and knew when you were awake, after all. Despite a genuine interest in seeking religion, he was not allowed to stay at Sunday school for long.
Today, he forthrightly asserts that there is no bearded old man in the clouds, "Help isn't coming." Yet he concedes that god can live in people's hearts and that religion grants people a structure that's beneficial to them. Somewhat ironically, it is a reflection of this structure that now gives him his pontifical platform. Charles looks past the irony, identifying the responsibility of his unique position.
I believe I once had a taste of that same strange responsibility that Charles holds. While working as an English teacher, we held a magic evening for our students. At the last minute, the tarot card reader dropped out, and I (as a materialist and atheist who loves getting on his soapbox about fraudulent mediums and psychics) was asked to don the shirt of a charlatan.
As a teacher of teenagers, you always crave an opportunity to give advice to your students that they'll actually listen to. Unwittingly, that's the platform I had stumbled onto. The queue for my tarot card readings stretched around the entire college, some students queued multiple times – opting to skip the professional magicians in the other rooms. I felt like I successfully imparted more wisdom in that evening than the rest of my teaching career combined – all while doing something I fundamentally disagreed with. I suspect Max lives with many of the same contradictions.
A Space Pope's Work is Never Done
Weddings, births, funerals (and the occasional inquisition) are just a fraction of a Space Pope's work. He cofounded The Sixth Empire, the "Coastguard of New Eden", for those lost in space. Both on a personal basis and through the Sixth Empire, Charles spends much of his time in EVE answering the calls of those in need of support.
The Sixth Empire is a non-combat alliance that welcomes in those with no home in New Eden. It is something of a space refuge – embracing those who are struggling with emotional problems, those who are lonely, those who have been kicked out from other alliances, and first-and-foremost those who are seeking connection.
There is none of the usual space piracy, subterfuge, or warmongering. Most of the time, they just "[…] talk over comms and have a good time. I pontificate and they all dress up as monks." Max explains this as if it's the most normal thing in the world.
A Papal Farewell
It is easy to see why people turn to Max. Beyond his ability to put people at ease, he radiates a cheeky, inquisitive charm. He is humble but also clearly relishes in his unlikely celebrity – all too aware that it could disappear in a moment. While he might claim to be a pope, I don't believe he'd ever claim to be a saint – it is the juxtaposition of his grandiose status and his very human, well-humoured outlook that makes him such a captivating figure.
Over the course of our interview, tears of laughter and sadness were shed. As I began to leave, he called me back to our small, dark interview room – which at this point had the distinct feeling of a confession booth (not that I've ever been in one). He opened his phone and showed me a rudimentary slideshow of dozens of photos he had saved in his Notes app.
Each photo showed a tattoo of his papal insignia – the official symbol of the Sixth Empire. Some covered people's entire chests. Others were next to old scars across wrists. Each was an indelible tribute from EVE players who credited him with saving their lives.
The mood once again grew solemn. With every photo he swiped through, I became increasingly lost for words.
Clearly anticipating the sobering effect these photos have, and always one to bounce between polar moods, he introduced the final photo by declaring "And now just to lighten the mood…" before revealing a photo of a rather attractive woman's stock modelling shot. Just underneath her chest was a generic EVE Online tattoo.
I left the interview feeling all spun around. Like Pope Francis had just dragged me backwards through one of EVE's stargates. The first words I managed to get out? "The space pope just showed me some underboob, and I think I love him."
If you've been struggling with your mental health or you've been affected by any of the topics covered in this article, help is available .
Alex Sinclair Lack is MMO Games' Head of Content, a video game journalist and script writer. He recently had to delete his Twitter and now has a measly 11 followers. Show him some love by making it 12.