the two popes

I was eagerly awaiting the release of The Two Popes on Netflix. The choice of actors was brilliant, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. The story was intriguing. The movie lived up to its expectations.

Masterful actors inhabit a character so deeply that we forget the actor and become engrossed with the person and story being told. Hopkins and Pryce are masters. Many times during the movie I forgot that they were there. It was Benedict and Francis on the screen.

The movie is “inspired by true events”, a term I learned more about while working on my screenplay. It allows the writer to weave fiction with fact without fear of liability. Several articles have been written about the accuracy of the movie, including The Two Popes; what’s fact and what’s fiction from America Magazine. It’s helpful to know the basic facts behind the story. With this movie, though, it’s best to sit back and allow yourself to be immersed in the dialogue between the two protagonists. The writing portrays the human struggles of both popes while emphasizing their differences. And, the differences are hard to avoid.

The contrasting liturgical fashion tastes of the two popes became an instantly identifiable symbol of their different pastoral styles. Benedict’s love for traditional finery and red Prada shoes became a caricature to be mocked by liberals. (Guilty!) Yet, for most of the movie the two men are dressed simply. Two men, one a pope and one a future pope, talking to each other. The dialogue identifies the deeper differences, and I think this is where the movie shines.

Hopkins brilliantly portrays Benedict as a man who spent his entire adult life in an academic/theological bubble. There is an innate awkwardness about him. He tries to impress Francis (Pryce) with his piano skills, side-stepping topics of conversation that he knows nothing about. He eats by himself. He knows little about popular culture. He has few, if any, friends outside his clerical circles.

It is a sympathetic portrayal and one that is often used to defend the emeritus pope. Ah, but he was simply too sensitive. Too gentle. Too intellectual. Too much of an introvert to be loved by the masses.

Hog-wash.

Joseph Ratzinger truly was “God’s Rottweiler”. As head of the Doctrine of Faith, his attacks on liberal theologians, priests and religious were harsh and unjust. Punishments were meted out for anyone who dared question the doctrine of the church, especially her teachings on a male-only priesthood. In contrast, ecclesial sanctions were light or non-existent for sexual abusers.

Clericalism and its defence was at the heart of Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict. His was a narrow vision of church focused on black and white doctrine, clerical power and a mythical, holier church of the past. His lack of personal experience with “the world” was not a sign of contemplative holiness. It was a sign of a person sadly out of touch with the people he was called to serve. His liturgical style, over-the top vestments surrounded by similarly dressed attendants, emphasized to the great-unwashed in the pews their great-unwashedness.

The movie scenes that stayed with me the most, were the close-ups on Francis while he listens to Benedict bearing his soul. Pryce looks piercingly into Hopkins’ eyes. Honest compassion and confusion mingle on his face. He is trying to understand this man, so unlike himself.

Francis, of course, is not perfect. The controversies around his actions as Jesuit Provincial during the Dirty War years in Argentina still haunt his legacy. The movie shows that they still haunt the man. What does he do? He tries to make reparation with his life. He eschews clerical luxuries to live and work closer to those he served. In Argentina, as Archbishop, it was the slums. In Rome, it is Santa Marta where he can dine and worship with residents and visitors alike. He speaks unceasingly of mercy, compassion and social justice and matches his actions to his words.

Two Popes. Two men with two contrasting visions of church, talking and trying to understand each other. Perhaps, the simple lesson to take from this movie is this.

Two men talking and trying to understand each other.

in defence of pope francis

francis

My last blog post was an angry rant. I believe that anger is the correct response to the seriousness of the abuse crisis. Anger is the wake up call. Anger is the emotion that will fuel the desire to face the problem, search for solutions, and begin the difficult task of reforming and rebuilding.

But, we also need to put anger aside to gain clarity and perspective amid a deafening cacophony of opposing voices. In the next few posts, I hope to share some more thoughts with the hope that you will share yours. Dialogue is needed more than ever before.

In reality, the problem is greater than one grand jury report. Greater than one diocese. Greater than one cardinal or one bishop or one priest. Greater than one pope. The sheer magnitude, world-wide, of the abuse crisis defies any “one size fits all” solution.

Heavy the head that wears the crown. But, I have more faith in Pope Francis wearing that crown than any other head in our church today. Here’s why…

From day one, Francis has railed against the evil rot of clericalism. He preached about it to the cardinals as they prepared for the last papal election. After he became pope, Francis never tired of criticizing men who enter the priesthood for power and prestige. He pointed his finger at cliques within Vatican circles that spend their energy in political posturing, infighting and gossiping.  He consistently preached to bishops and cardinals, old and new, to be true servant leaders not princes.

As a bishop and cardinal, Francis lived a simple, humble life in the poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. When he counsels families on daily life and love, he speaks with an intimacy and knowledge that defies his celibate life. His words reflect the many hours he has spent with families, sharing their joys, their sorrows and their struggles.

Francis’s deep love for children is without question. We know he will do all within his power to protect these little ones and their families.

Francis is a Jesuit. At the core of Jesuit spirituality is the discipline of discernment. Discernment requires deep prayer and hard work. And, it takes time. This is hard to accept when we yearn for quick and easy solutions.

No words of penance or sorrow can take away the damage, both personal and institutional, that this crisis has caused. But, I do believe that when Francis speaks he speaks from his heart. His words are genuine, honest and transparent.

This crisis is greater than the wisdom of any one person, no matter how kind, wise, loving or holy they are. Francis is not perfect. He has and will continue to make mistakes. For some, his words and actions will be too much. For others, not enough.

The church is in a mess beyond the power of any one person, committee, inquiry or program. If any pope is capable of beginning the clean up, it’s Francis.

 

keys to the kingdom

Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

I’ve been to Rome many times. When you enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you can’t miss the famous “Chair of St. Peter” hanging on the far wall. The relic appears miraculously suspended in mid-air, floating among Bernini’s golden clouds and cherubs. As with many relics, the authenticity of the chair may be questioned, but the belief in the central role of Peter and his papal descendants is on clear display.

chair of st peter

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of Jesus asking Peter, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter replies with, “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.”

Jesus rewards Peter with what seems to be an over-the-top gift.

“I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (see Matthew 16)

Wow! I was lucky to get a holy card from Sister Francis for giving the right answer in catechism class. The keys to heaven is some powerful reward!

Reminders of Jesus’s gifting of the keys to Peter are all over Rome. The keys are central to the papal insignia shown below. The keys, gold and silver, represent the power to loose and bind. They are part of the Vatican flag, and are included in each pope’s individual coat of arms.papal keys

 

In all honesty, I struggle with this gospel reading and its interpretation over the years. The power of the keys gave popes and bishops the rationale to claim ever increasing power throughout church history. Imagine having an unscrupulous leader who was granted this kind of divine right. What could possibly go wrong?

The keys have been used as tools of intimidation, bludgeoning the faithful into submission while emptying their pockets to fill church coffers. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by richly dressed, powerful men who claimed to be judge and jury over all things earthly and divine, threatening you with eternal hell-fire and brimstone?

Peter, himself, was a sinner. Sure, he had one shining  moment of inspiration. One right answer. The gospels also show him as a doubter. A denier. A cowardly man who ran from the cross with the other disciples, fearing for his life. How many times have we heard that this is what made Peter so special? Jesus didn’t choose him because he was perfect. Jesus chose him despite his sins and imperfections.

But, why would Jesus give God-like power to one man? Was absolute power his intention? Was it his intention that this absolute power would be passed down an unbroken line of popes through the centuries, claiming unarguable validity from a couple of scripture lines? Surely, Jesus knew enough about human nature to realize that this was a recipe for disaster?

Miraculously, the church has survived centuries of popes, both sinners and saints…and there were some humdinger sinners! By the 1960’s, Vatican II focused on the collegial nature of papal power. The pope rules in union with his bishops, guided also by the sensus fidei, the sense of the faithful. You and me. The church is the Body of Christ, composed of all the people of God with Jesus as its head. WE are the church.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need leaders. We do. We need popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay people who embrace servant leadership, not autocratic, absolutist power. We need this in our church. We need it in our world.

We need true servant leaders.

From the moment he was elected, Pope Francis showed the world that he was a different kind of pope, determined to reform church leadership from the Vatican to the parish level. He never tires of preaching about humility, faith of the heart, integrity and sincerity in word and deed.

On this feast day,  I pray that Pope Francis will lead us with his service and example for many years to come.