Reading the Signs When a Couple of Papal Pals Get to Talking


The pages of a large Gospel, laying on the unadorned wooden coffin, fluttered in the breeze. Cardinals in red and bishops in purple stood in ranks nearby, and millions of mourners filled St. Peter’s Square and surrounding streets for the vast spectacle that was Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005.

I was standing atop the square’s colonnade with other journalists who had come from around the world to cover John Paul’s death and the aftermath. The image of those riffling pages below seized my attention.

Most of us on that colonnade presumably knew the symbolism: the wind-ruffled Gospel represented the presence of the Holy Spirit. Or so we had learned while boning up on the pageantry of the funeral and the conclave to come.

Actual footage of that image shows up in the opening scenes of the dramedy “The Two Popes,” which began streaming Friday on Netflix. The film — “inspired by true events,” as an opening title reads — depicts the election of John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI; Benedict’s shocking resignation; and the election of the current pontiff, Francis.

Seeing these events again reminded me how covering the opaque world of the Vatican so often meant reading signs, interpreting signifiers, understanding obscure statements. The official language of the Holy See, remember, is a dead one, Latin.

For Vaticanistas accustomed to tea-reading but not so worried about historical exactitude, “The Two Popes” is a delightful imaginary look behind the thick walls of secrecy.

I guess it’s like royals-watchers taking in “The Crown.”

The first voyeuristic frissons come during sequences about the 2005 conclave depicting the politicking that is known to go on among the cardinals, and showing them voting in arcane rituals.

We know they politick from leaked accounts, and we know how the conclave is supposed to work from Vatican documents that detail the process. We can also imagine how it looks because the Holy See press office invited reporters into the Sistine Chapel for a look-see right before the conclave.

The interest comes because of the intense secrecy that the Vatican insists upon. Participants are sworn to reveal nothing and face excommunication if they violate the oath. All media, any connections to the outside world and recording devices are banned. The premises are swept for electronic bugging.

In the movie, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) is elected Pope Benedict XVI and the stage is set for the ultimate pontifical buddy picture — a series of imagined conversations between Benedict and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who will become his successor, Francis.

It’s a joy to listen in as these two formidable churchmen joust over sharply different views of Catholicism, admit spiritual doubts, joke about the Beatles, seek absolution from each other and end up drinking beer together, just two old popes watching soccer on a couch.

The screenwriter, Anthony McCarten (an experienced fictionalizer of historic figures whose credits include the Winston Churchill tale “Darkest Hour”), said he based his script on a mound of research — from secondary sources, archives and interviews.

“The potential I sensed in this story was a debate, an almost Talmudic disputation, between a progressive and a conservative,” he said in an interview. “It spoke to the broader conversation raging in society at present.”

About a quarter of the papal dialogue is verbatim from the words or writings of the two men, he said. The rest was paraphrased or made up “in the spirit” of the churchmen.

The conversations open as they stroll through the gardens of the pope’s summer residence, in Castel Gandolfo. Bergoglio has just flown to Rome to press Benedict to grant him his wish to resign as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

McCarten does a fine job of telegraphing their politics — traditionalist, protective of doctrine, inward-looking vs. open to the modern world, compassionate and flexible — and encapsulates the debate that continues throughout the church.

Benedict grills the cardinal, expressing irritation with his supposedly sympathetic statements about married priests (“misquoted,” the Bergoglio character says) and homosexuality (“taken out of context”), and with the cardinal’s giving communion to divorced Catholics (not denied) and popularity among the common people.

Bergoglio then delivers a pointed critique of the Benedict papacy that would warm the heart of a liberal Catholic:

“We have spent these last years disciplining any one who disagrees with our line on divorce, on birth control, on being gay, while our planet was being destroyed, while inequality grew like a cancer.”

He continues, “All the time the real danger was inside, inside with us.” That danger, he said, was the church hierarchy’s knowledge that clerics were sexually preying on children, and its failure to protect these children.

The movie then gins up a seemingly far-fetched idea: that Benedict revealed to Bergoglio that he planned to resign.

Bergoglio, like much of the Catholic world when the real-life Benedict made the announcement, is stupefied by the idea. He runs through all the reasons it can’t happen — the kind of arguments journalists rehearsed in 2010, when rumors of a papal resignation surfaced. I wrote just such a piece myself, duly presenting the evidence for and against. The arguments against it seemed stronger.

As Bergoglio says in the movie, popes sign on for life; their authority comes from the fact they will suffer and die on the job; the papacy will be forever damaged; two popes will create conflict. It hasn’t happened in nearly 600 years.

“Two popes?” he says. “No, it’s unthinkable.”

I was no less stunned when I heard the real-world news, which Benedict first delivered in Latin.

McCarten addresses perhaps the most fascinating question in these events: What was the real reason Benedict stepped down?

Publicly, Benedict said failing strength “of mind and body” led him to believe he could no longer fulfill his ministry.

The screenplay suggests he suffered a crisis of faith because of his inadequate response to the clerical sex abuse scandal. Benedict also hints that the burden of dealing with corruption in the Vatican was a cause.

“He’s suffering from an interior crisis,” McCarten said. “He felt morally disqualified, if you like, from being the person who could fix it.”

The movie also depicts Benedict effectively passing the baton to Bergoglio, convinced by their conversations. This may be the least credible plot point.

No evidence exists that any of these conversations ever took place. In fact, in “Last Testament: In His Own Words” (2016), written with Peter Seewald, Benedict said he had no inkling who his successor might be and even doubted it would be Bergoglio. He also said the scandal and corruption did not play a role in his resignation.

But McCarten may have captured a deeper truth: that toward the end of his papacy, Benedict came to believe that the church had to change course and that its center of gravity was shifting to Latin America, or at least outside Europe.

That is the view of a Francis biographer, Austen Ivereigh, who pointed out that at the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio reportedly received a large bloc of votes but then threw his support to Ratzinger. Ivereigh also noted that Benedict allowed a major meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007 to go forward. The bishops produced a report, probably written by Bergoglio, laying out a road map for church renewal and the groundwork for a Latin American pope. Like the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that Benedict foresaw Bergoglio would be elected,” Ivereigh said in an interview. “They had a good relationship, and Benedict was very sympathetic to Bergoglio,” he added.

By now, it might be clear what “The Two Popes” is not: a movie about two popes.

Bergoglio only becomes Pope Francis about 15 minutes before the end, allowing the filmmakers to avoid a big question, one with real consequence for the church: What is the relationship of two popes (albeit one with an emeritus title) living within 10 minutes walking distance from each other and how will that affect the church’s unity? Competing contemporaneous popes in the Middle Ages was a church nightmare.

Benedict has become the point of reference for traditionalists and conservatives who disdain Francis’ informality and his focus on inclusiveness over doctrine. Friction between the Francis and Benedict camps has been apparent, although Ivereigh argued that the men share a personal warmth.

“The Two Popes” ends on a happy note, with the title characters watching the Germany-Argentina World Cup final in 2014. (Germany won; score one for Benedict.)

It’s a harmonious picture that will please the Vatican image-handlers. So will montages of Francis, championing the poor and oppressed.

But it’s only half the picture.


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