The Two Popes
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 30, 2019 - 12:00am

“Any journey, no matter how long, has to start somewhere. Any journey, no matter how glorious, can start with a mistake.”

The message may strike you as self-evident, but it acquires a new dimension when you find out it’s Pope Francis giving it, and that it could apply to his personal journey toward the Seat of Saint Peter.

Amid the holiday food bingeing and partying, you may want to check out the Netflix movie “The Two Popes.” I had planned to write something about the end of the decade for this pre-New Year issue, but the movie reminded me that the reason for the holidays is a matter of faith.

These two popes – Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, and Francis, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina – have had such profound impact on the Roman Catholic faith in the past decade. And I don’t think we have seen the last of the changes.

The film provides a fascinating glimpse into the seismic shift from the hardline doctrine of Benedict – derided by critics as a Nazi – and the more accessible Francis.

Based on true events, the movie offers a riveting look at the humanity of the two leaders of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics (Benedict is pope emeritus for life) – their vanities and self-doubts, their frailties, their little joys.

There’s the young scientist Bergoglio, clutching a bouquet to propose to his girlfriend. There are the two popes, not just deep in discussion over the problems of the Church, but also hearing each other’s confession, sharing a pizza, watching soccer on TV and dancing the tango. There’s Cardinal Bergoglio whistling Abba’s Dancing Queen, and telling Benedict about Eleanor Rigby.

Did you know that Benedict is a classical pianist with a fondness for Mozart and a recording in the Beatles’ label? Watching the depiction of Benedict playing a lovely piano piece by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana while Francis watched is, for me – lapsed Catholic that I am – like seeing God come down to Earth, talking to the flock in language that we can understand.

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Having been educated in a Catholic school, I still have drilled in my head the belief in the infallibility of the pope. So it is especially touching to see two popes baring their doubts and vulnerabilities – even if it’s only in the movies.

Those who were turned off by Benedict’s hardline doctrine could end up being touched and sympathizing with the man who felt the need to resign amid the corruption and clergy scandals besetting his beloved Church. In a poignant scene, Benedict reveals to Francis that while he has always been alone, he felt God’s constant presence. But with the scandals, he said it was the first time that he felt lonely.

There’s an article that says the meeting between the two pontiffs at the papal summer residence in Italy’s scenic Castel Gandolfo, during which Benedict discloses his intention to retire and dissuades Francis from resigning, never happened. I’m no expert on this and I haven’t come across corroborating stories, so I just appreciate the scenes from the movie and take them to be close to the truth.

It helps that the stars are such accomplished actors: Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio / Francis. The cast alone should make you pause from the holiday merrymaking and watch the movie.

Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplay, is the same person behind several of my other favorite bio dramas – The Theory of Everything (about Stephen Hawking), Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen and Freddie Mercury).

Director Fernando Meirelles is the same person who helmed the riveting Brazilian crime movie City of God and The Constant Gardener.

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Seeing the rock star reception accorded Francis since his election as pope, it’s hard to reconcile his global popularity with the conflicted Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who described himself as a deeply divisive person in his native Argentina.

It seems unbelievable that Bergoglio was once exiled to the equivalent of a Jesuit kangkungan, in the Argentine city of Cordoba, for two years from 1990. The movie depicts Francis telling Benedict that the exile was for consorting with the tyrants of the Argentine military dictatorship, who executed and “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 people – not only communists and political dissidents but also members of the clergy who engaged in liberation theology from 1973 to 1983. The young Bergoglio lost a friend to Argentina’s Dirty War. This was why he did not deserve to be pope, he told Benedict in the movie. 

After the exile, however, the Jesuits brought Bergoglio back to Buenos Aires, elevating him to auxiliary bishop. Six years later, he became the archbishop and the top Catholic shepherd in Argentina.

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The dramatic leadership change in the Vatican also tracks the changes in the Catholic Church in the past decade. Church attendance has in fact been falling for several decades, and the corruption and clergy sex scandals merely aggravated the decline.

In one scene, Cardinal Bergoglio marvels at the murals in the Vatican. A colleague tells him, “This is Europe. Our churches are beautiful but empty, like a fire covered in ash. We need someone to blow the ash away.”

The exchanges between Benedict and Francis, which I doubt are verbatim depictions of actual conversations, define the continuing debates in the Church: where do you draw the line between change and compromise in today’s world?

For the survival of the faith, must you break down walls, or do you protect the walls of the house?

The Catholic Church continues to grapple with questions on its teachings and the sex abuse scandals.

Upon his election to the papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio famously told the clergy, “May God forgive you for what you have done.”

Judging from the reaction of the flock – and even non-Catholics – to Pope Francis, his rise to the Seat of St. Peter has been the best thing that has happened to the faith in the past decade.

In this season of joy, his journey from exile to leader of the flock gives resonance to his message during a mass in Argentina: “When you feel lost, don’t worry; God will not give up.”

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