“Two Popes”

Once when I was a little boy, growing up in the highlands of northwestern Argentina my little town received a visitor: a pope. The military junta was in its final tragic burst of power before sputtering out, pinning its hopes for survival upon an ill-fated and foolhardy war with England. A war the pope wanted to end. But I didn’t understand any of that; the pope was coming to Salta!

It was not a visit for us, nor did we participate; my parents, evangelical missionaries in a catholic country, were not there to give obeisance to the Bishop of Rome. But neither was there the noxious dispersions of now; every idiot with an ill-formed opinion and a free Facebook account demanding to be heard. We knew that, despite the differences, John Paul II was a great man. He had after all sparked the Solidarity Movement in Poland only a few years before; he was a voice of freedom and peace in a world of brutal Godless communism. He was part of the “Genius Cluster” of then, which included Reagan and Thatcher and Mandela and De Klerk and Arias and Mother Teresa – a group that demanded respect.

I remember watching his 747 land. “He will sleep on a golden bed,” one child told to another. “They have made for him a golden throne on the lookout at the top of the hill.” Children will be children, fancy and wonder without the cynicism product of narcissism and envy. The pope had come to see us in Salta.

I rarely do reviews of movies; there is hardly ever anything to say. Quoting Ricky Gervais, “Seriously, most films are awful. Lazy. Remakes, sequels.” And he goes on, yes I’m going to quote it because it was priceless, “(…) if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and f*** off, OK?” Because it was this crowd who dared to broach the subject of that ancient universal church, of which they “know nothing”.

For that reason, I decided to do a review of “Two Popes”. Not because it was particularly well done, because it wasn’t. Nor because it was saved by Anthony Hopkins, though it was (not to diss Jonathan Pryce, he’s been a favorite of mine since he rescued Evita from Madonna). No, I wanted to review this movie because the Roman Catholic Church is dying – and I wonder if these “Two Popes” are not in fact her undertakers. And this, for a man who was a little boy who remembers a great pope who stood up against tremendous evil – is a tragedy. The film, as best I can tell, is an attempt to whitewash Bergoglio’s past juxtaposed against an even-more-unsympathetic Ratzinger. The reason (for Hollywood, I’m sure) is the new Pope’s less-than-orthodox and more-progressive view on issues related to the culture war; a war which Hollywood “know-nothings” are prosecuting as energetically as they can; and who believe they have found an ally in Bergoglio.

The movie is a series of fake dialogues between Ratzinger and Bergoglio, where Ratzinger tells Bergoglio he is unorthodox and Bergoglio tells Ratzinger he’s done his penance for supporting the junta back in the day (incidentally during the time when I was in Argentina and John Paul came to visit us and tried to stop the violence); setting him up for his ‘conversion’ event when he found liberation theology (this is the way it is presented in the movie, of course, it would be interesting for the pope himself to correct the record if it needs so-correcting. Though given the lectures on capitalism I doubt it). For those who don’t know, liberation theology is Marxist Catholicism, the whole “Christ came to set the captives free” argument and “Jesus’s preferential option for the poor” put into partisan politics; turning our ancient Bible into nothing more than a red rag to be discussed at the meetings of union workers and collectivities in the slums and parlor houses of the world. The movie is a puff piece for a pope who is losing steam – as the scandals which have sucked the church dry of faith ravage that ancient institution.

My heart aches for the church, though I am not a catholic. I have communed with Spanish nuns on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu, sitting upon a poor veranda brushed and sparkling drinking tea overlooking the freshly dug graves of sisters who lost their lives to hemorrhagic malaria; I have toured facilities in Barquisimeto Venezuela where Don Bosco Priests fight not only the terrible frustration of caring for the severely mentally disabled but also at the same time the new poverty into which Bergoglio’s “Liberation Theology” has plunged that country. (I even wrote a cover article for the Jesuit Order’s print mag “America Magazine” about the amazing priests and their epic fight against the evils of socialism – I wonder if Bergoglio read it?) I have known extraordinary Catholics, who are ill-served by the horrible mess into which the church has plunged; the politicization, power politics lacquering over sexual abuse of the highest order.

Image result for america magazine cover venezuela

Oh, I know, that does not make a very interesting movie. And Hollywood sure does like their heroes – though their judgement is often found wanting. It is the church, however, that here suffers. Because it has existed and will continue to exist for the sole purpose that Jesus commanded to Simon Peter, the first pope: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” That is it, that is all. No culture wars, no Marxist politics, no liberation theology – no abuse of the most vulnerable. Just good people loving their God through their service to those around them. I have known so many amazing, sacrificial Catholics like that. They might not make as interesting a movie, for they have no power. But they are the beating heart of faith; and when the Sistine Chapel peels and all the gold flakes away, God’s church will abide, found in Idjwi and Barquisimeto and – yes – in Salta as well.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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