Monday, January 6, 2020

My personal take on The Two Popes currently on Netflix.

There was much hype regarding the production and release of the Netflix movie The Two Popes and I was able to catch it over the Christmas/New Year holiday period.  I was particularly keen to see how they would portray the two leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and particularly what would be the slant of the screenwriter, Anthony McCarten.  The little information that I had of this man was that he had been raised Catholic, but nothing more can be found about how he has lived his Catholic life. Information of this kind would reveal the leanings of his work.  But because nothing of the sort could be culled from the internet, I had to make some deductions from the movie itself.

What was positive about the movie was that it took pains to portray the political turmoil that was bedeviling Argentina during the time when young Jorge Bergoglio was a young Jesuit.  This movie’s portrayal of his backstory also showed that Jorge did make certain choices which impacted the way his fellow Jesuits lived and ministered as priests and to a certain extent, the compromises that were made.  This gives us a glimpse into the heart of the man before he rose the ranks of first the episcopacy and then ultimately to the papacy, becoming the first ever Argentinian Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in history.  
Not taken from a scene from the movie, but from an actual meeting of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict at prayer.
In this regard, one can then understand why Pope Francis appears to have strong leanings toward the oppressed, and a tenderness toward the poor.  One can understand why the man isn’t as hard lined as many would think a Pope should be when it comes to issues that make it very challenging for one to live a righteous and morally upright Catholic life, perhaps because he had seen (and continues to see) the struggles of a people who had tried to be faithful but were facing opposition and persecution for their faith.  

But it is clear that the mass media will always take sides when reporting what is either Tweeted or said by Pope Francis.  Those with an agenda will always want to read or hear him make comments that will support their stand, and to that effect, put words into his mouth.  When the famous statement made by him “who am I to judge?” was uttered, there were many who chose to interpret that as a tacit approval of living the LGBT lifestyle, when in truth, it was more of an interpretation of a statement.  I always tell people that we must be prudent and to differentiate between what the man Jorge Bergoglio says or Tweets, from what Pope Francis says or tweets in an official capacity as the Pontifax Maximus.  

But there is one major thing that I feel very strongly (in a negative way) about regarding the movie, and this is the very one-dimensional portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Ratzinger.  It is particularly about how he is seen to be almost in a state of despair before retiring from the Papacy, because he says that he doesn’t hear the voice of God in prayer.  To show this giant of a spiritual man who has a tome of theological wealth of writings under his belt and who had been the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years before his Papacy almost falling into despair because in prayer he “doesn’t hear the voice of God” anymore is both a shame and laughable at the same time.  Could it be more accurate to conjecture rather that this is more a revelation of what Anthony McCarten considers a healthy prayer-life to be – when one constantly hears the voice of God?  One wonders.

To show Pope Benedict almost despairing to not hear God’s voice is akin to him casting aside St Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians to not despair when he writes in 2 Cor. 4:8 “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair”.   Moreover, it also treats as non-existent the strong testimonies of faith of the saints who persevered in their prayer life and love relationship with God despite not receiving consolations – saints like St Theresa of Avila, St Theresa of Calcutta, and perhaps most notably, the mystic and poet St John of the Cross whose faith was so strengthened during his time when he experienced his Dark Night of the Soul.  

I would say that this is shallow and one-dimensional portrayal of Pope Benedict’s prayer life because it gives very little credit to how this holy man understands what prayer is.  The unfortunate result of this movie is that it may have given some depth to the character of Pope Francis but it  achieves this at the expense of flattening out the character of Pope Benedict XVI, and giving him as much depth as a pool that is two-inches deep.  And that is a shame.

I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on just how wrong it is to reduce prayer to hearing God’s voice. 

Prayer is first and foremost not a feeling nor a sensation or emotion.  It is less about hearing God’s voice, than it is about loving God with effort and dedication. Prayer is far more love-based than it is sentiment-based.  The very common problem that many people face (and they tell me this all the time) is that they make the mistake of either praying for a feeling, or when there is a feeling.  And they come to some kind of crisis in their prayer life when those feelings and sentiments are missing or have stopped altogether.  In my counsel to them, I try to lead them to understand that feelings alone are not good indications of a good prayer life, and for that matter, neither are they good indications of a good marriage.  That is because feelings fluctuate like the stock market.  To prayer only when there are feelings doesn’t show much love because one can be praying as a form of self-gratification. 

I am certainly not afraid nor ashamed to admit that every day when I enter the Adoration Room for my Holy Hour with the Lord, that I do not hear the voice of God in any audible way.  But I know that I am doing this because I am loving God and it is a demonstration of my fidelity, and I know that this suffices.  My faithfulness to this routine is prayer in itself.  If God chooses to give me any consolations, it is a welcome bonus, but it cannot be for this that I go into daily prayer.  If it is so, then it will be reducible to some form of self-gratification.

But love that is effortful, love that is willing the good of the other for the sake of the other, and prayer that is based on this love reveals a prayer that is solid because it is based on a love that is solid.  I am sure that of all people, Pope Benedict knows this.  Maybe not Anthony McCarten, I'm afraid.

Would I recommend spending time watching this production?  Watch it if it is a glimpse of the backstory of the person of Jorge Bergoglio that interests you.  But if you are hoping to get some inspiration to develop your spiritual life in a mature and serious way, you may be in danger of giving yourselves reason to abandon your prayer life after watching The Two Popes rather than becoming inspired to be faithful to stick with fidelity to a constant prayer routine in life.  

If it is a better understanding of your Catholic faith that you are seeking, you’d be better off watching the archived episodes of Life is Worth Living which was hosted and presented by the erudite and holy Bishop Fulton Sheen which was made back in the 1950s.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the 'two feet' analogy lol... Also for the 'Life is worth living' recommendation. It's available in our local excellent read. And, of course, thanks for the movie review. God Bless.