The Saga of Two Popes

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By Philip Mudartha
Bellevision Media Network

16 Jun 2020: It has been nearly three months of self-isolation for me in distant land of the United States of America (USA) where I had arrived to visit my son. Because India enforced nation-wide lockdown since March 24 and kept extending it in phases and closed all airports for international flights till an unknown future date, I cannot return to my home in Mumbai.


My predicament has afforded me the luxury of not having to attend to domestic chores but engage in at least a 3-mile daily walking trips to neighbourhood parks, reading and watching television for news and movies. I read at least 2 books a week and watch 2 movies on Netflix. Of the movies, I found “The Two Popes” quite interesting and worth a story here on your favourite website.


The Two Popes:

When our current Pope, Francis, was elected on 13 March 2013, I did a story on him here. For the first time in history of modern papacy, and only for the second time since its inception, a Pope had abdicated. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI surprised both the Catholic Establishment and the world with his sudden resignation.



In the conclave to choose the new Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires received maximum votes of fellow cardinals. It was expected of the cardinals to crown a younger, healthier and a reformist to steer the Church from the controversies that dogged the reign of Benedict.


The Plot: 

The movie tells the story of an imagined encounter in the Vatical City between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio. Benedict summons Bergoglio to meet him at Castel Gandolfo, his private summer residence outside of Rome.


The movie begins with Bergoglio arriving in the Vatican City to elect a new Pope in April 2005. The long-suffering Pope John Paul had died in office. German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is elected after several rounds of voting. He takes the   Benedict XVI. Bergoglio gets 10 votes, a distant second.


Seven years later, the Catholic Church is embroiled in the Vatican leaks scandal, and Benedict’s tenure has been tainted by public accusations regarding his role in the coverup.


Bergoglio has submitted his resignation as archbishop, but the Vatican has not responded. As he prepares to go to Rome and personally deliver his resignation, he is summoned to Vatican City. Bergoglio and Benedict meet at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. The two debate the roles of God and the church. Benedict recounts what led him to the priesthood and talks about his interests, which includes watching his favourite television show and playing the piano.


Bergoglio recounts his early life and path into the church. He is shown dancing Tango with his girl-friend but ends his engagement and joins the Jesuits.  Father Franz Jalics and Father Orlando Yorio become his spiritual friends.


Benedict rejects Bergoglio’s resignation. The world would perceive it as a vote of no confidence in his leadership and weaken the Catholic Church, he says. Benedict and Bergoglio put aside their differences.


The next day, the two go to the Vatican by helicopter. Benedict continues to avoid discussing Bergoglio’s resignation. Benedict meets with Bergoglio in the Room of Tears within the Sistine Chapel, where he confides his intention to resign the papacy. Shocked, Bergoglio objects and argues for church tradition and continuity. Benedict says his opinions regarding tradition are different now and believes change is essential.


Benedict says Bergoglio could be his successor, but Bergoglio rejects the idea. After all, he is perceived to have collaborated with the Argentine military dictatorship. Further, he has failed to protect Jalics and Yorio from military crackdown. His failure to confront the military junta may have damaged his reputation. His role during the "Dirty War might come to haunt him.


Though Jalics reconciled with him, his regret is never reconciling with Yorio. Memories of his actions and inaction during the dictatorship continually haunt him. Benedict reminds him that the freedom to choose to help is often stifled. In this open confession, Benedict gives Bergoglio absolution. Then Benedict confesses that he was aware of a priest’s long-term sexual misconduct and regrets staying silent. He no longer hears God’s words and affirms his wish to abdicate. Bergoglio comforts Benedict and offers him absolution as well.


One year later, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his resignation to the world. After Bergoglio is elected as Pope Francis, the two popes watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina together, but routing for competing teams. The movie ends there hinting that Benedict will not interfere in how Francis will conduct his pontificate.


Performances: Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Francis, and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Emeritus give sterling performances. While the theological debate between them give us a clue to the tussle between the orthodox and reformist streams within the Catholic Establishment, the walks in the garden, the informal chats and the warming up while watching football together showcases the warmth between the two Popes.


What is fact and fiction? 

1. The content is mostly based on historic events. The theological and philosophical debates indulged in are based on published speeches by the two men and encyclicals issued by Benedict.


2. American magazine “Time” has said that the relationships of two Popes  inn real life has not been as smooth as depicted in the movie. It cites the  release, by Pope Emeritus Benedict six years after his abdication, a 6,000 word letter blaming the clergy sex abuse scandal on factors including the "dangerously liberal theological ideas" within the Church. The letter did not cite Pope Francis as “the liberal” but left no doubts of its intent.


3. The American daily The New York Times described that the letter significantly undercut the authority of Pope Francis.


4. The British daily The Guardian discussed a letter the letter issued in 2017 by Benedict which praised German Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Meisner is an outspoken critic of Pope Francis and whose resignation in 2014 was accepted by Pope Francis. Even in his retirement, Meisner has publicly questioned the theological positions espoused by Pope Francis. It is public knowledge that Meisner was an admirer of Pope John Paul II as well as Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005).


5. The French daily Le Figaro published in January 2020, excerpt of the book “From the depths of Our Hearts” compiled by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea which includes essays penned by Benedict. The book and its timing is aimed at de-railing the possible relaxation of “priestly celibacy rules” by Pope Francis. It also questions Francis’s encyclical granting sacraments to the divorcees. Cardinal Sarah is the face of the Conservatives in Vatican Curia, and who want to block the reformist initiatives of Francis.


6. The mutual confessions shown to have taken place within the Sistine chapel are theatrical creation and did not take place. There was no meeting of the two men. It is unthinkable for Benedict, a conservative to the core, to consult a Cardinal from the other side of the world who was not a Vatican Curia official and therefore an “outsider”.


7. It is true that Bergoglio was “removed and exiled” to a remote region of Argentina where he spent two years as an ordinary priest as “penance” for his failure to “save fellow Jesuits who rebelled against the military junta”, especially Father Yorio who was martyred.


8. Pope Francis did call and speak to Benedict prior to his appearance as the new Pope from the papal balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. But this does not suggest, as the movie does, that the two men ever reconciled their differences in theological and philosophical doctrines.


9. Benedict had no interest in any sports, let alone football and the German Team. There is no question of him wasting his time to watch football with the new Pope.


(The facts compiled from published articles from quoted sources).




Comments on this Article
Ronald Sabi, Moodubelle Tue, June-23-2020, 2:52
Thank you Philip for this rare kind of article. I had no idea such movie existed. Not sure if it is exact real life story....certainly there may be near truth elements!
Eugene D Souza, Moodubelle Tue, June-16-2020, 2:50
Very interesting review of the movie Two Popes by Philip Mudartha.
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