The Two Popes

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: 
I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.
Philippians 3:13 (Common English Bible)
There are not two, but three main presences within Fernando Meirelles’ extraordinary film The Two Popes about the tumultuous friendship between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The first two are the Holy Sees themselves. There’s Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins), the German successor of the much beloved Pope John Paul II chosen in large part for his grave, combative conservatism in the face of increasing global secularism. Then there’s Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the avuncular Argentinian Jesuit whose liberal theology forged in the furnace of Third World poverty sent shockwaves throughout a Church entrenched in tradition and First World luxury. The film sees them butt heads in the wake of a disillusioned Bergoglio’s attempted resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Believing said resignation would be interpreted as a vote of no confidence against his papacy, Benedict refuses. When Bergoglio flies to Rome to confront Benedict personally, the two debate and argue until they slowly become friends.
The third presence only makes itself known gradually, first appearing almost thirty minutes into the film in the midst of their first meeting and, subsequently, their first major argument where they bicker about homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and the provision of sacraments for those out of communion. It’s a small, imperious voice from Benedict’s Fitbit demanding he remain active to reach his prescribed 10,000 steps a day: “Don’t stop now. Keep moving.” This voice becomes almost a commentator on the action as the film continues, punctuating arguments and announcing Benedict’s unseen presence. It’s a marvelous narrative device that keeps the film from getting mired in endless debates about theology, ensuring a sense of forward momentum for both the story and its characters. Indeed, the voice gets the last line of the movie proper before the credits begin as Benedict sits alone in the Vatican after his resignation and Bergoglio’s election as pope: “Don’t stop now. Keep moving. Keep moving.”
As the film continues, it becomes impossible to ignore the Fitbit as an embodiment of the Holy Spirit, gently nudging both Benedict and Bergoglio towards not just reconciliation but friendship. It underscores the film’s central thesis that faith and its practice cannot remain frozen in the past. “Time demands movement,” Bergoglio challenges during their first meeting. Benedict snaps back with accusations of hypocrisy concerning Bergoglio’s former conservative attitudes, particularly concerning homosexuality.
“I changed,” he admits.
“No, you compromised,” Benedict challenges.
“No. No compromise. No, I changed. It’s a different thing.”

Such change seems almost blasphemous in an organization like the Catholic Church that lives and dies by its traditions and moves with the speed of centuries, not minutes. But change it must—and not through the rejection of holy doctrine but by faithful, reverent reinterpretation. To paraphrase a great theologian, it’s the difference between drinking from a stagnant pond and a flowing river.
There are few places in the scriptures where this need for faithful, reverent change are better emphasized than in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians where Paul challenges his audience to avoid those who say that believers and converts must strictly adhere to outdated Jewish law and ritual to be saved. Referring to his own upbringing as a Jewish Pharisee as so much sewer trash—sewer trash!—he boasts that he rejected everything for the sake of Christ. It’s through living faithfully in God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ that salvation comes, not through outdated ritual and calcified theology. To tear down walls, to shatter the barriers between mankind, this is what living in Christ means. And if any of our practices or beliefs hobble us in this journey, then we must listen for the Holy Spirit which whispers now more than ever to not stop now, to keep moving, to keep moving.


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