The Two Popes, by Albert W. Vogt III

Given that The Two Popes (2019) was made by Netflix, which is making more movies these days than most other outlets and is basically now Hollywood, I naturally assumed that it would be a load of crap. If movies are an expression of our culture, then our culture has been turning against the Catholic Church since the 1960s. I have been documenting this for the better part of my adult life. In one sense, it is understandable that there would be such a backlash. The Church’s handling of such scandals as the sexual abuse of children has drawn criticism that is warranted at times. This was part of my apprehension to this film. It is not that I wish to remain aloof from these problems, but rather I feel like the Church is headed in the right direction on this matter. The other side of things pertains to my memory of the events portrayed therein. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Sir Anthony Hopkins) became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, succeeding the widely respected St. Pope John Paul the Great, I felt he was the right man to face such issues. Like many Catholics, I was a bit puzzled by some of his bungling and subsequent other misdeeds that befell the Holy See during his time on the Chair of St. Peter. Still, I was slightly concerned with the election of the perceived progressive Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who become our current Pope Francis when Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013. After watching the film twice now on back-to-back nights, I am happy to say that my fears were unfounded and that it depicts the right balance struck by Francis between tradition and meeting the needs of the modern world, even if none of the conversations depicted ever happened.

Indeed, the main feature of The Two Popes are a series of imaginary discussions between the then Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. It does not start there, however. Instead it begins with Bergoglio celebrating Mass in an impoverished neighborhood in Buenos Aires, a hallmark of his charism. It is 2005 and news reaches him that St. Pope John Paul the Great (though not a saint in 2005) had passed. Being a man in his position and owing to a tradition that stretches back millennia, he heads to Rome to take part in the election of a new pope. Such events draw a great deal of media attention, and the film does well to weave in their own version of the hoopla and actual footage from the time. The question then, and covered in these scenes, is whether the Church would go back to a more traditional stance or keep moving forward into the twenty-first century. The person who is representative of the old ways is then Cardinal Ratzinger, while Bergoglio is presented as the more modern man. Ratzinger becomes Benedict XVI and Bergoglio goes back to Argentina. A few years pass and Bergoglio begins contemplating retirement, booking a trip to Rome to tender his resignation, when he receives a summons to Rome by Benedict XVI. He arrives to find the pontiff in his summer retreat, and their first meeting does not go well. It is clear that they have different ways of looking at things, but it should also be noted that they both believe firmly in the Church and its Faith. It is also evident that Benedict XVI’s health is failing as his movements are labored. Later, after having separate meals, they come back together to share some evening recreation. Benedict XVI plays the piano for Bergoglio, and they watch a little television, though the cardinal keeps trying to steer everything back to his desire to retire. Benedict XVI keeps dodging it, but they begin to form a bond nonetheless. Events then shift back to Vatican City, and eventually they pick back up their conversation within the Sistine Chapel alone (it is good to be the pope). It is here that Benedict XVI reveals his desire to give up his position, owing to his health and his perception that he is not the right person to handle the scandals that beset him. Bergoglio tries to dissuade the pope, particularly when Benedict XVI suggests to him that the Argentinian would be better suited for the job. At this point we see a flashback (though some of this is covered at the retreat), which is basically Bergoglio’s vocation story, revealing Bergoglio’s shame over his conduct as head of the Jesuits in Argentina and Uruguay during the oppressive military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. The bond between the two men is solidified when Benedict XVI confesses to mishandling the child sexual abuse crimes. Thus Bergoglio accepts Benedict XVI request to stay on, and is eventually made Pope Francis when Benedict resigns. The film closes with another fictitious scene of the two watching the 2014 Soccer World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.

Despite very little of the interactions filmed taking place, and the unreal notion of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis being so close, The Two Popes is an immensely satisfactory film. It takes Faith seriously. Most movies tend to poke fun at clergy, or, worse, basically portray the Catholic Church as being either complicit or actually aiding evil. In a sense, the scandalous topics covered here are a sort of confession, though obviously not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In other words, there is no Imprimatur from the Holy See on this movie. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged, and has been officially speaking, that mistakes were made. That is what Confession is for, after all, and only by doing so can you move forward (whether you believe in God or not).

What I appreciated most about The Two Popes, though, was how each character talked about their own personal faith. Benedict XVI is perhaps most revealing in this regard. Perhaps everything you need to know about him is revealed when he reveals that he knows very little about the Beatles. Again, much of this is all made up, but it was cool to see him talk about how he had felt God with him his entire life, though the trials of his papacy had clearly worn on him. As for Francis, his own difficulties informed how he saw Christ in the poor, and thus sought to minister to them.

It should also be mentioned what The Two Popes is not: a condemnation of Benedict XVI and a praise of Francis. While the pontiff is infallible on matters of Faith, both men, as men, were flawed. But as Francis says in the movie, weakness is good because it is an opportunity for God to give us strength. In the end, the film shows that between the two (even if they are not actually best friends) are two sides of the same Catholic coin. Despite my trepidation, when Francis became pope in 2013, he did not open up the progressive floodgates. He has said some things that I have had trouble with, but I am also happy to report that he has protected many traditions I hold dear as a Catholic. The thing about these traditions is that they are not done simply because that is the way they have always been done. If you look at the history of the Church, when certain modes of behavior have been adopted universally, they have only come after many people getting together and prayerfully considering, well, everything. This is where this film shines. Clearly both are discerning men, seeking God’s will first in all matters, and ultimately guiding the Church aright. We should all do the same.

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