A Man of His Word: New documentary gives personal glimpse into Pope Francis’ pontificate

How can the name and works of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest and most inspiring saints, be performed in the 21st century? How is the Church called to address the signs of the times, develop its message without losing the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and always?

We’re in the midst of Pope Francis’ sixth year of pontificate – the first Latin-American pope, the first Jesuit and the first to choose his name after Assisi’s 12th-century saint, whom Christ called to reform his Church.

The documentary titled Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which opened May 18, makes the pontiff’s human side and closeness visible, featuring the most striking images of his pontificate – his trips, audiences, main lectures and gestures of closeness to the people – in an interview with filmmaker Wim Wenders.

During the interview, the pope responds to questions regarding the environment, workers’ rights, family, the importance of parents’ walk with their children, the sins that shame the Church (as sexual abuse to minors by clergy), the need to live in simplicity and evangelical poverty, and the importance of prayer, among other aspects of relevance that are not foreign to the concerns the Church.

This interview makes Pope Francis a man of closeness that worries about each of the faithful in the Church. His care for the millions of men and women around the world, including those who don’t profess the Catholic faith but let themselves be influenced by his message, is also made clear.

A Man of His Word gives the impression that the pope is talking to you face-to-face, with a tired but lucid demeanor, with a thoughtful smile, sharing with you the joy of living the Gospel and encouraging you with simple words to live according to your faith.

The images in the documentary, which highlight his trips, lectures, homilies and audiences, pair excellently the striking words of the pontiff with the reactions of joy, surprise and fervor in the faces of those who listen and receive him throughout the world. The documentary, thus, compiles diverse trips to countries such as Brazil, the United States, Italy, Israel, the Central African Republic, the Philippines, Portugal and Bolivia.

Perhaps due to a lack of time, this production falls short in a few topics. It would have been great if the pope emphasized documents such as his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which is today an invaluable guide for many projects of evangelization around the world. The viewer could be led to think that the encyclical Laudato Si – on the care of our common home – is the only valuable document he has written.

Even then, I highly recommend it to everyone: to Catholics who admire and follow the pontiff and to people from other denominations who want to learn from this great leader, from his simple and wise words, from this pope who came “from the ends of the world,” showing always a human countenance, delving into the teachings of the Gospel and trying to bring to life those words he said to more than a hundred journalists at the beginning of his pontificate: “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor!”

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA