A Papal Joust –The Two Popes

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.








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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    I have no doubt that, just as King Cnut or Canute of Denmark, England and Norway was the supreme ironist of the second decade of the second millennium, Joseph Ratzinger could claim to be supreme ironist of the second decade of the third. Old Canute never thought he could turn back the tide: the legend’s detail makes it clear that he had his throne set up on the sandy shore to teach his fawning, flattering courtiers that he had no power over Nature: only God had. That, 1000 years later, Canute’s action is still being misconstrued just shows how great an ironist he was. When Pope Benedict took to his throne that morning in February 2013 to address his flattering fawning cardinals in Latin, he must have enjoyed their perplexity as much as Canute did with his lot a millennium earlier. Only a latter day ironist could recall recording a CD at Abbey Road, then quip, “Eleanor Rigby? Do you know her?”, or “It’s a German joke – it doesn’t have to be funny”, or “This popularity of yours, is there a trick to it?” or “For the good of the Church I shall confine myself henceforth to prayer and meditation, and never wear those red boots again.”

    Yes, the man is partial to a bit of irony. Just 57 years ago, in his address to a gathering at Bonn University on the Liturgy section of ‘De Ecclesia’ of the just finished Vatican Council’s First Session, he stressed that those conservative Council Fathers most in favour of defending Latin stumbled through their bog-Latin ‘interventions’ while the most progressive in promoting the vernacular in the Mass spoke in the most fluent classical Latin worthy of Cicero. For the young peritus to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, the funniest (non-German) joke was when New York’s Cardinal Spellman insisted that the sacred Latin language must be retained in the Mass – but then begged that priests be allowed to read the Divine Office in their own vernaculars.

    But speaking of irony, won’t it be strange if not only the Papacy but the future of the ACP website is rescued from near oblivion by a timely combination of Twitter and Netflix ? And now that Popes Anthony and Jonathan have enjoyed their premieres on this forum, wouldn’t it be truly ironic if we ignored Pope Jude Law as ‘The Young Pope’ or Pope John Malkovich as ‘The New Pope’? Time to bring aggiornamento up to date and ressourcement back to the well-springs.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    I almost didn’t see the movie because of a trashing of it by John Waters on First Things. I was amazed at its lavish spectacle (based mainly on studio reconstructions, since the Vatican forbids use of the buildings in fictional movies). I found the recreation of the two popes touching, and making one feel friendly toward both of them. The interviews with the two stars, the director, and the scriptwriter are worth looking up. It’s a film that will do a lot of good.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Given that the crisis of the moment in Ireland has to do with the total denial of opportunities for honest dialogue – now ongoing for over half-a-century – I found this movie just about as riveting as the latest copy of Vogue.

    Bromance – and that is where the plot was taking us right from the start – is no descriptor for the intent of those who hew to Benedictine rigidity in their opposition to Franciscan synodality and compassion.

    It is one thing to accept that in the context of ecclesiastical eye-candy Benedict could be a charming host for afternoon tea – but quite another to suppose that the fathoms of ecclesiastical permafrost that Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II, and then Benedict XVI, have bequeathed to us on this island can be thawed by Netflix romanticism and sunny cinematography.

    How many Irish bishops have yet responded with enthusiasm to the ‘Franciscan direction’? I am reminded instead of the dither and delay that governed the Soviet summit in the immediate aftermath of the death of Stalin – except that the Irish paralysis has a far tighter grip. Very few ecclesiastical bets have yet been placed in Ireland on the permanent demise of the Holy Roman Inquisition and the Irish Catholic enthusiasm for delation.

  4. Damian Smyth says:

    The opening scenes quickly confirmed my worst suspicions: I had seen this movie before. Way back then it was called “Amadeus”. The hero was a fictional version of Mozart, with Mozart’s real life friend Salieri reduced to a second rate composer consumed by jealousy.

    Anthony Hopkins plays the pedestrian Benedict/Salieri to Jonathan Price’s charismatic Francis/Amadeus.

    While Price produces a recognizable Francis, Hopkins remains a recognizable Hopkins always getting his own way, an irresistible force ultimately prevailing over an ultimately movable Francis.

    The objective of the film seems to be to reassure us that some sort of blessed reconciliation has been reached at the very top if we only knew certain hidden facts. After the initial shadow boxing this “happy ending” emerges from the clumsy contrivance of the mutual confessions/absolutions of the two protagonists. (The rest of the cast are merely bit players.) You don’t have to be Catholic to recognize this as pure fiction.

    The bitter truth is that all too often manipulations of the role of the sacrament of confession contributed in no small part to monstrous problems for the entire church from top to bottom.

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