The One Pope

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The new and much-ballyhooed Netflix film The Two Popes should, by rights, be called The One Pope, for it presents a fairly nuanced, textured, and sympathetic portrait of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and a complete caricature of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). This imbalance fatally undermines the movie, whose purpose, it seems, is to show that old grumpy, legalistic Benedict finds his spiritual bearings through the ministrations of friendly, forward-looking Francis. But such a thematic trajectory ultimately does violence to both figures, and turns what could have been a supremely interesting character study into a predictable and tedious apologia for the filmmaker’s preferred version of Catholicism.

That we are dealing with a caricature of Ratzinger becomes clear when, in the opening minutes of the film, the Bavarian Cardinal is presented as ambitiously plotting to secure his election as Pope in 2005. On at least three occasions, the real Cardinal Ratzinger begged John Paul II to allow him to retire from his position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to take up a life of study and prayer. He stayed on only because John Paul adamantly refused the requests. And in 2005, upon the death of John Paul, even Ratzinger’s ideological opponents admitted that the now seventy-eight-year-old Cardinal wanted nothing more than to return to Bavaria and write his Christology. The ambitious plotting fits, of course, the caricature of the “conservative” churchman, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood Joseph Ratzinger. Furthermore, in the scene depicting an imagined meeting between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio in the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the aged Pope frowningly lashes out at his Argentinian colleague, bitterly criticizing the Cardinal’s theology. Once again, even Joseph Ratzinger’s detractors admit that “God’s Rottweiler” is in fact invariably kind, soft-spoken, and gentle in his dealings with others. The barking ideologue is, again, a convenient caricature but not even close to the real Ratzinger.

But the most serious mischaracterization occurs toward the end of the film when a dispirited Benedict, resolved to resign the papacy, admits that he had stopped hearing the voice of God and that he had begun to hear it again only through his newfound friendship with Cardinal Bergoglio! Mind you, in saying the following I mean not an ounce of disrespect to the real Pope Francis, but that one of the most intelligent and spiritually alert Catholics of the last one hundred years would require the intervention of Cardinal Bergoglio in order to hear the voice of God is beyond absurd. From beginning to end of his career, Ratzinger/Benedict has produced some of the most spiritually luminous theology in the great tradition. That he was, by 2012, tired and physically ill, and that he felt incapable of governing the great apparatus of the Catholic Church—yes, of course. But that he was spiritually lost—no way. Again, it might be a fantasy of some on the left that “conservatives” hide their spiritual bankruptcy behind a veneer of rules and authoritarianism, but one would be hard pressed indeed to apply this hermeneutic to Joseph Ratzinger.

The very best parts of this film are the flashbacks to earlier stages in the life of Jorge Bergoglio, which shed considerable light on the psychological and spiritual development of the future Pope. The scene depicting his powerful encounter with a confessor dying of cancer is particularly moving, and the uncompromising treatment of his dealings with two Jesuit priests under his authority during the “Dirty War” in Argentina goes a long way to explaining his commitment to the poor and to a simple manner of life. What would have infinitely improved the film, in my humble judgment, is a similar treatment in regard to Joseph Ratzinger. If only we had had a flashback to the sixteen-year-old boy from a fiercely anti-Nazi family, pressed into military service in the dying days of the Third Reich, we would understand more thoroughly Ratzinger’s deep suspicion of secularist/totalitarian utopias and cults of personality. If only we had had a flashback to the young priest, peritus to Cardinal Frings, leading the liberal faction at Vatican II and eager to turn from preconciliar conservatism, we would have understood that he was no simple-minded guardian of the status quo. If only we had had a flashback to the Tubingen professor, scandalized by a postconciliar extremism that was throwing the theological baby out with the bathwater, we might have understood his reticence regarding programs advocating change for the sake of change. If only we had had a flashback to the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith composing a nuanced document, both thoughtfully critical and deeply appreciative of Liberation Theology, we might have grasped that Pope Benedict was by no means indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Now, I realize that such a treatment would have made for a far longer movie, but who cares? Heck, I was willing to sit through three-and-a-half rather tedious hours of The Irishman. I would have been happy to watch four hours of a film that was as honest and insightful about Joseph Ratzinger as it was about Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It would have made not only for a fascinating psychological study, but also for an illuminating look at two different but deeply complementary ecclesial perspectives. Instead, we got more of a cartoon.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix

COMING UP: A Catholic’s guide to Star Wars

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“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

These words flash in blue across the screen, and the epic John Williams score echoes, almost instinctively, in the mind of any Star Wars fan. Come Dec. 20, these words will appear once more in theaters all around the world as the hugely anticipated next entry in the revered Star Wars series, The Rise of Skywalker, is finally released. A grueling two-year wait since 2017’s The Last Jedi has left Star Wars fans both casual and die-hard speculating about what shocking revelations The Rise of Skywalker will bring with it, and soon, all will be revealed.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you already know what to expect. However, if you’ve never seen a Star Wars film before and are curious about the buzz, read on to find out why you need to watch Star Wars.

Aside from being some of the most visually dazzling and epic films ever created, Star Wars is propelled by a compelling storyline rife with some of the most memorable characters in cinematic history. Even those with a passing interest in Star Wars are more than likely familiar with the names Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. This fact alone speaks to the far-reaching impact Star Wars has made on culture.

As with any great story, Star Wars has it all: drama, love, action, epic struggles between good and evil, twists, turns and everything in between. The Rise of Skywalker is the long-awaited conclusion of the new “sequel trilogy” that was launched in 2015 with The Force Awakens. It continues the story started in the original 1970 trilogy comprised of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. The prequel trilogy, launched in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, follows Anakin Skywalker’s path to becoming Darth Vader.

(Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm)

At its core, Star Wars is a story about destiny. It’s about becoming who you were meant to be. Each of the characters are unwillingly cast into a battle for something greater than themselves, and it draws strong parallels to the Christian life and what it means to be human, which is likely why it’s such a beloved franchise.

It’s also a story about the triumph of good over evil. There’s a certain element of spirituality in the Star Wars universe called the Force. This is an invisible energy which flows though and binds all living things, and only certain people are able to utilize it. Morality also plays an important role in how the Force is used; use the Force for good deeds and for the help of others, and one can be trained as a jedi. However, use the Force for evil, and one becomes slowly corrupted by the dark side of the Force.

In the end, good always wins over evil, but victory isn’t won without a battle. While the characters in Star Wars are battling for the fate of the galaxy, human persons are entrenched in a battle of their own. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ already conquered death, and we have nothing to fear; even so, the enemy manages to creep into our lives with sin, and in our fallenness, it’s a battle we must fight day in and day out.

But still, hope remains, and above all else, Star Wars is a story about hope. Without hope, the characters in Star Wars would have nothing to fight for. Hope is why we all fight the battles we do. At times, these battles are daunting, exhausting and feel nearly impossible to overcome. But it’s the hope of something better and a brighter future that drives each of us to face those battles head on. In Star Wars, they do it with the aid of the Force. But Christians have something much better than that; we have the creator of the universe on our side.

Stories like the one told in Star Wars are exciting, but more than that, they’re empowering. We may not live a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but as the films show, humanity doesn’t change much, no matter the time – or galaxy – they may be living in. So, pop some popcorn, throw on Star Wars and escape from reality a little bit – you might be surprised at just how much that far, far away galaxy looks like our own.