Many years ago a philosophy professor assigned my class to watch Wim Wenders’ “Der Himmel über Berlin” (called in English “Wings of Desire”) which was an award-winning film from the 1980s. Its haunting scenes have remained lodged in my imagination for decades. Thus, I was excited to see the director’s most recent project, a documentary titled “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.”
I laughingly sent my friends a photo saying “This picture says a lot about some of the current problems with our country…” My mother sat entirely alone in the theater as the previews ran. It was understandably quiet on a Monday evening in June, but we had a totally private screening. Perhaps if more people were thinking reflectively about the intersection of global affairs and theological questions of ultimate meaning and value, we could all hope for a more unified nation.
I took a page out of my former professor’s book and assigned the film to supplement my own current graduate students’ required reading of Paul Vallely’s masterful biography “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots — The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism” and Leonardo Boff’s “Francis of Rome, Francis of Assisi.” All of this was foundational background material for our class in Rome this summer exploring English, Italian and Spanish primary and secondary texts studying the theological vision, formation, and efforts of the Holy Father.
The film provided some fascinating and striking moments, and was structured in such a way as to make one feel the pope was intimately conversing with the audience. The footage from some of his memorable milestone moments (e.g. in the halls of Congress, at Lampedusa, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines) was counterbalanced by less grand spectacles when he was criticizing careerism and clericalism to the Curia, encouraging Argentinians to embrace one another in the wake of terrible political and economic discord, or visiting prisoners, hospice patients or refugee camps without much fanfare.
Many of his theological priorities were covered extensively: ecology and its relationship to a culture of disposability, the breakdown of the family due to overwork, the dignity of humankind in the face of rampant unemployment and marginalization. His calls for the fundamental human rights of “Trabajo, Tierra, y Techos” (often keeping the alliteration in English as “Labor, Land, and Lodging”) was highlighted. But so were some of the areas where critics from across the ideological spectrum find fault or ambiguities in the pope’s approach: his language about women and issues around gender are sometimes seen as deeply rooted in Latin American machismo culture, or at the very least as tone-deaf; despite his claims of Zero Tolerance, his approach to the victims of sexual abuse has been viewed in some quarters as inadequate; and the shift in his leadership style over the course of his career has resulted in perceived contradictions or innovative articulations of teachings that some find unhelpful or disorienting. He is without a doubt a complex individual who does not neatly fit into the progressive-conservative boxes with which we are all too familiar.
However, popular religiosity, dialogue, and accompaniment continue to lie at the heart of his vision of a church that is not equated simply with the staggeringly small percentage (less than 0.1 percent) of celibate males who are called to holy orders in the overall Catholic body.
His more attentive focus on the other 99.9 percent of us is worth closer study.
While I enjoyed the movie and highly recommend it to anyone reading this publication, my own (minor) critique would include the fact that while Francis of Assisi figures prominently in framing this pontificate, it’s somewhat ironic to me that the only mention of Loyola’s spiritual vision at all came in the credits when I realized that the Italian actor who played Saint Francis is named Ignazio in real life! While I obviously readily admit that the Umbrian 13th century “il poverello” plays an absolutely central role in the pope’s spiritual life and vision, the Ignatian principles of discernment, “care for the entire person” (cura personalis), and “overcoming oneself” (Vince Te Ipsum) warrant at least a passing mention in a biography of the first Jesuit pope in history, who has for 60 years practiced these spiritual disciplines every day.
Regardless of such a trivial quibble, one could find much worse ways to spend an evening than to make some time to spend with the Holy Father, even if there may not be too many people in the rows around you.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.