The Two Popes
In the new film, The Two Popes, there’s a conversation between the then Pope Benedict and the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis). Benedict had just played a classical piece on the piano for Francis and he (Benedict) mentioned that he had recorded a CD of classical pieces at the famous Abbey Road studios in London, famous because the Beatles recorded there. ‘The Beatles, did you ever hear of them?’ he asks Francis. Francis smiled and said, ‘Yes, Eleanor Rigby’. Benedict replied, ‘Eleanor Rigby? Do you know her?’ (‘Eleanor Rigby’ was the name of a famous Beatle song.)
That first short exchange between the two popes makes the central point of the film: Benedict after a sheltered life, entered the priesthood and spent the rest of his life between immersion in the academic world and immersion in the Vatican – he didn’t know who the Beatles were. And Francis, a man of the world, knowing not just who the Beatles were but that they recorded ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the Abbey Road studios in London.
In an early scene, where Francis tries to get Benedict to allow him to retire from his position as archbishop and become ‘a simple parish priest’, they bat their differences over and back, like Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon. Benedict accuses Francis of compromising the teaching of the Catholic Church by being soft on homosexuality, allowing married people in second relationships to receive Communion and so on. Francis countered by suggesting the word ‘change’ for the word ‘compromise’. The Church, he suggested, needs to make its peace with the world.
Benedict and Francis represent the two great world-views of Catholicism today. Benedict’s represented by the Vatican Curia, opposing change, operating out of a narrow, inflexible black and white theology and, like King Canute, trying to keep out the tide of the modern world.
Francis seeking change, happy to live in the grey zone and open to learning how to swim in the great tide of modernity.
Just before Christmas that gap was obvious in the retirement of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the college of Cardinals, at 92 and Francis’ announcement that his replacement would be appointed for a term of five years rather than the lifetime position enjoyed by Sodano.
No doubt the comment of the recently sainted John Henry Newman
that popes shouldn’t serve for more than 20 years was close to Francis’ mind!
The gap between the two popes, symbolized by Benedict wearing the traditional red shoes and Francis wearing his own, is the difference between a culture of privilege and entitlement embedded in the Vatican and a culture of service that is a central part of Francis’ reform.
Benedict cuts a lonely, isolated, even depressed figure with the Church collapsing around him, not least in the Vatican where the problems are mounting and lamenting the decline of Latin, a language he used to communicate his decision to retire, knowing that hardly 20% of those listening would understand what he was saying.
Francis, on the other hand, has plenty of friends, lives a more ‘normal’ life, is comfortable in his own skin and has a more positive and optimistic take on the future of the Church.
Both have significant failures to negotiate, Benedict conflicted over not dealing with the sexual abuse scandals centred on the Legionaries of Christ founder, Fr Marcial Maciel, even though he had the details before him on his desk; and Francis haunted by the mistakes he made in disciplining fellow-Jesuits and exposing them to torture at the hands of the military junta in his native Argentina. It was, effectively, an open confession between the two, that ended with a mutual and moving absolution.
The film, in one-to-one encounters between Benedict and Francis, deals with a series of issues facing the Catholic Church – sexual abuse, financial mismanagement, church teaching, ritual – some directly and comprehensively, others fleetingly. While the acting is first rate, the dialogue well-scripted and the intellectual counter-punching a joy to experience, the film seems to suggest that at the end of the day what’s most compelling is personality rather than formation, personal experience rather than theology.
Inevitably, Francis – his interest in football, his taste for pizzas, his expertise in the tango – seems to win the debate with his common touch and his open and affirming view of the world with Benedict, possibly a bit unfairly, personifying a complex, highly intelligent but ultimately problematic, take on reality. ‘This popularity of yours’ he asks Francis, is there a trick to it?’ Sad.
Enhancing the enjoyment of the film is the stunning background of Rome and the Vatican, with conversations between the two protagonists taking place in the Vatican gardens and in the Sistine chapel. The serried ranks of the cardinals swathed in cardinal-red provide memorable scenes in a context where Benedict seemed very much at home and Francis seemed completely out of place.
It is easy to see why Francis was uncomfortable with the papal apartments (and Castel Gandolfo) and opted for the more modest B&B accommodation and isn’t impressed with Vatican apparatchiks swanning around in medieval dress surfing the Vatican waves of ambition and privilege while waiting patiently for a bishopric. Plato’s wise words quoted by Cardinal Turkson – ‘The most important qualification for leadership in the Church is not wanting to be leader’ – don’t ring very true in Rome.
It’s easy to see too why that artificial world is a dangerous context for impressionable young men who can be easily convinced that Rome represents standards that should be replicated in the wider church and the wider world rather than unambiguously rejected.
Everything about this film suggests that the opposite is the case. The Rome depicted in ‘The Two Popes’ should be given a wide berth.