The Two Popes

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of violence, references to sexual abuse, illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 27, 2019
Copyright Netflix 2019

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret.

We will never know what really happened when Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) became the first supreme pontiff to resign since 1294, selecting the man who became Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as his successor. Everything about it was surprising. Popes have almost always served until death, and the selection process, gorgeously visualized here, is ancient and mysterious. We see with the rows of scarlet-clad cardinals clicking their bright blue pens to cast their votes and the two smoke options, black to show no decision yet, white to show that the new pope has been chosen. The idea of a pope resigning (creating the new position of emeritus pope) and guiding the selection of his successor was unprecedented (well, we don’t know much about what happened in the 13th century, but it was so long ago that “unprecedented” seems appropriate) and so there was no template to follow.

And yet, as it cannot help but be, it is political. The cardinals are only human. During the 2005 selection process, While many votes went for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was a long shot. There had never been a Jesuit pope, one from the Americas, one from the Southern Hemisphere. Almost all of the popes have been Italian and all have been from Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who reigned in the 8th century. And so the one selected was a German cardinal named Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

More than geography and religious order separated the two men. Pope Benedict was conservative and traditional. Bergoglio is more liberal, more about Catholicism as a call to compassion and engagement with the community. He lived simply and wanted to return being a parish priest. After a few years, he wanted to retire. He wrote to Pope Benedict to ask for permission but before his letter was received, Pope Benedict wrote to ask him to visit. Bergoglio thinks it is to discuss his retirement. Pope Benedict has another career path in mind.

There are some flashbacks, particularly concerning their deepest regrets and most painful failings. But most of the movie is two of the greatest actors of our time playing two of the most formidable and consequential figures of our time, talking to each other about the most foundational issues of faith and philosophy. Sometimes they are indirect. Sometimes they clash in style and substance. But they always exemplify their commitment to their beliefs with grace and kindness. Pope Benedict plays the piano. Bergoglio orders pizza and Fanta. They develop an understanding and a kind of friendship. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to eavesdrop on this conversation, and inspiring, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes references to and brief depictions of historical atrocities and references to sexual abuse by priests.

Family discussion: What were the biggest differences in viewpoint between the two popes? What was more important to Pope Benedict than their differences in interpretation and commitment to tradition?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” and “Hesburgh”

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Pope Francis — A Man of His Word

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 7:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including images of suffering
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of tragic circumstances including illness and oppression
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ unabashedly admiring documentary about Pope Francis is an intriguing and inspiring look at the man who is breaking a number of precedents in the Holy See. He is the first pope from South America after 265 predecessors, mostly from Italy. He is the first Jesuit, an order known for scholarship who “seek to find God in all things.” And he was the first to choose the name Francis, after the 16th century saint who was devoted to animals and nature.

He is unaffected, explaining that he wants to live very simply. He speaks to audiences and to us via the camera with candor and sincerity on topics ranging from the environment to interfaith understanding to the “three T’s” he says should be the foundations of our lives: in English, they are work (for dignity and contribution to the community — “to imitate God with your hands by creating”), land (to support sustainable resources), and roof (home, family).

Wenders interweaves a re-enactment of moments in the life of St. Francis to show parallels with his namesake. But the heart of the movie is seeing His Holiness interact with the crowds of people who are palpably moved by him. Visiting an American prison, he reminds the inmates that the very first man to become a saint was a prisoner like them. And then, in an act of infinite tenderness, he washes and kisses prisoners’ feet. A girl asks him why he has renounced wealth. He tells her that poverty around the world is a scandal, and “we must all become a little bit poorer…poverty is central to the gospel.” We can see the lugubrious faces of some of the Vatican priests and cardinals, looking as though this is not a welcome interpretation. Later, visiting his home country of Argentina, the crowd almost ecstatic with pride, he reminds them of a local expression: “You can always add water to the beans.”

One of the most striking scenes in the film has images of environmental damage projected onto the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. “The poorest of the poor is Mother Earth. We have plundered her.” And he reminds us that it is the poorest of the poor who suffer first and most from environmental degradation.

His Holiness appears before the United States Congress and goes to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis and imams. He sits alone in a cell at the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He speaks movingly to groups and to us about the importance of listening. He misses the connection of taking confession. He says smiles are “the flower of the heart” and speaks of the importance of of having a sense of humor. He tells us the prayer of St. Thomas More he says every morning that always makes him smile.

“An artist is an apostle of beauty,” he tells us. Wenders has taken that to heart and created a film that gives us a rare chance to hear directly from a man whose devotion and compassion will inspire anyone.

Parents should know that this film includes some footage of suffering, including illness, poverty, and abuse.

Family discussion: How do the “three T’s” appear in your life? Why is listening especially important to Pope Francis?

If you like this, try: “The Letters” and “Nuns on the Bus”

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- Reviews Spiritual films

The Sisterhood: A Reality Series About Would-Be Nuns

Posted on November 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Lifetime’s new reality series “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns” is one of the best shows on television right now. It follows a group of five young women who are considering becoming nuns and have entered into a process called “discerning.” They spend time in three convents, which for the first time opened up their world to cameras. They are The Carmelites for the Aged and Infirm in Germantown, New York; The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in Chicago, Illinois; and The Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker in Walton, Kentucky.

The girls come across as shockingly unprepared for what they have undertaken, most of them with little practical or theological understanding, looking stunned when their cell phones are taken away and they are told that there is no make-up allowed. They bring a lot of luggage (literally as well as metaphorically) and seem to have no idea that they will be wearing the same simple uniform every day. A senior nun quietly explains, “Things you may have used our in society, they don’t really help you to grow with integrity and to see yourself as the gift you are that God sees you.” I’m pretty sure the one with the fancy nails, the (fake) Vuitton bag, and the boyfriend isn’t going to make it. I also have my doubts about the one who gushes about being proposed to by Jesus like she’s on “The Bachelor” and he handed her a rose.

What is deeply moving and inspiring here is not the halting steps of these young women but the deeply spiritual sisters who are guiding them. They present religious life as a truly holy undertaking on the most profound level. They are warm and welcoming to the young women but their comments and choices reflect the way that their faith has anchored and illuminated their lives and made it possible for them to devote themselves to worship and good deeds.

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Television

Exclusive Clip: Ida — The Story of a Nun Who Learned Her Family Was Jewish

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 12:29 am

I am delighted to be able to present an exclusive clip from “Ida,” the new award-winning film written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, opening May 2.

Poland 1962. Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a beautiful eighteen-year-old woman, preparing to become a nun at the convent where she has lived since orphaned as a child. She learns she has a living relative she must visit before taking her vows, her mother’s sister Wanda. Her aunt, she learns, is not only a former hard-line Communist state prosecutor notorious for sentencing priests and others to death, but also a Jew. Anna learns from her aunt that she too is Jewish – and that her real name is Ida. This revelation sets Anna, now Ida, on a journey to uncover her roots and confront the truth about her family. Together, the two women embark on a voyage of discovery of each other and their past. Ida has to choose between her birth identity and the religion that saved her from the massacres of the Nazi occupation of Poland. And Wanda must confront decisions she made during the War when she chose loyalty to the cause before family.

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Interview: Jay Sullivan of Raising Gentle Men

Posted on March 15, 2013 at 8:00 am

Jay Sullivan‘s new book, Raising Gentle Men: Lives at the Orphanage Edge, is the story of his experience as the only man living in a Kingston, Jamaica convent, helping to care for 250 orphan boys. It is a beautifully written and inspiring story. Sullivan generously took time to answer my questions about his experiences.

How did you first come to the orphanage in Jamaica?

I got there one step at a time.  My first year in Kingston, I walked by the orphanage grounds each day on my way to St. George’s College, the Jesuit high school where I taught English.  When I was asked to help run the school’s ministry program, I needed a place to take my students where they could work with less-privileged people.  What better than the orphanage around the corner?  From that initial interaction, my involvement with the place grew, and I eventually moved in.

What kind of training did you have in religion or education before your arrival?

I majored in English at Boston College, but hadn’t had any formal training as a teacher.  In fact, only one of the dozen BC teachers sent to Kingston in 1984 came from the School of Education.  The week before we landed in Kingston we went on a retreat to talk about our faith and our role at our schools.  Two nuns, veteran teachers themselves, spent a day giving us pointers on lesson plans and maintaining discipline.  The only line that stuck with me was, “Don’t smile until Christmas.”  It’s a classic line for teachers.  It means if you are strict for the first few months, you can loosen up after that.  But if the kids think you are a pushover at the start, they will walk all over you.  I wish I had heeded the nuns’ advice.  My first year I was a disaster when it came to discipline.  But I learned my lesson by the second year.

What was the biggest surprise of your time there?

Like everyone my age, I had just finished 16 years in a classroom, but had experienced that room from only one perspective.  Becoming a teacher, looking at the class from the front instead of the back of the room, changed my perspective on what had been going on for the last 16 years.  That alone was a huge learning curve.

How were the nuns different from what outsiders might expect?

I think most people assume nuns are serious and austere.  My Aunt Dolores was a Sister of Charity.  I grew up knowing her and some of her nun friends, who were the friendliest, happiest, most jovial people, always laughing and teasing each other.  The nuns at Alpha were of the same ilk.  There were certainly one or two that wore a dour face, and clearly, they all knew how to keep order, but their cheerfulness might have surprised people.

What did the boys want to know about you?

The boys were used to people coming and going at the orphanage, so their questions were simple.  My freckles and red hair piqued their interest more than anything else.

Were the boys supportive of each other?

I was always amazed at their generosity with each other.  If one of them got a special treat of some sort, he always wound up sharing it among whatever boy put out a hand.  I don’t know if that’s because they each knew hunger all too well, or because they were relatively well fed at Alpha and didn’t need to worry about their next meal.  They also supported each other emotionally.  When one scored a goal on the field, won at a game of cards, or was praised by a staff member for a good deed, the others would cheer him on.  Of course, they also teased each other, just like any other group of boys.

Do you have a favorite Bible passage or prayer?

I love the Prayer of St. Francis.  Its call to action is a theme throughout the book.

What was the best advice you got while you were in Jamaica?

Sister Magdalen talked a lot, but she wasn’t into dispensing advice.  Everything I learned from her and the other sisters was from watching their actions.  The way Magdalen took each day as it came, controlled only what she could, and let God handle the rest was the biggest lesson I learned.

What made you decide it was time to write the book?

I thought that 20 years was enough time to “think about” writing a book.  My wife and kids also let me know it was time to either write it or stop talking about it.  I’m sure many men accomplish their goals in life simply because their wives tell them, “Enough talk already.  Get it done.”

How does the understanding you gained in Jamaica influence your life today?

In Jamaica, I talked with the boys each evening about their lives.  I gained an appreciation for how diverse the human experience can be, and yet how similar we all are in seeking the essential human needs of camaraderie, companionship and knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves.  That experience has helped me challenge my assumptions about others, and stay focused on the basics about human nature when I deal with people.  Both have helped me a great deal in my role as a communication skills coach.  I still have a lot more to learn in this area.

What advice would you give someone who is about to begin the kind of work you describe in the book?

Stay open to the ideas you see and hear in others with more experience.  Approach the work knowing you can accomplish a great deal, but step carefully, and with great humility.

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