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

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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: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.