Every now and then there’s a high-profile TV programme that takes religion seriously. The occasions are rare enough but worth waiting for.
I was certainly impressed by Inside the Vatican on BBC2 last Friday, a fine piece of documentary making from producer-director Silvia Sacco. It was low key, subtle, nuanced and even moving at times. The narration was minimal, the camera unobtrusive and it was peopled by an array of interesting characters.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, effectively the Pope’s Foreign Minister, reflected on the diplomatic work of the Vatican in striving to create good relations between states. Anne-Julie Kerhuel worked in his department and exuded joy and good humour in her work and took time off for quiet prayer.
The police and security staff searched for bombs in the Vatican tunnels, the gardeners prepared for Palm Sunday and the cleaners dusted the angels. Mark Spyropoulos was a chorister and soloist in the papal choir who had studied music in Trinity College. He found singing the Credo posed challenging questions about his own Faith.
In one scene we saw the Pope speaking on contemporary issues to representatives of states around the world, but there were others invited – the poor and homeless who were fed by a group of cheerful nuns.
One of the most touching moments was when the Pope visited a local prison to wash the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday. One Muslim prisoner was impressed and when he heard he was to be involved said: “Do we wash his feet or does he wash ours?”
We got an insight into the Pope’s weekly audience – he blessed a very ill woman at an ambulance and later a honeymooning couple who were thrilled to meet him. I expect this Friday’s final episode to be more challenging as it deals with the abuse crisis and the papal visit to Ireland.
Meanwhile, The Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) returned last Friday with a worthy start to the new season. Michael Comyn started with a nod to Culture Night, pointing out that many churches and spiritual spaces had been involved. He segued nicely from people out on the streets enjoying that evening’s events to those for whom the streets are their place of residence. I hesitate to use the word ‘home’. Fr Peter McVerry, long-time campaigner on the issue, was concerned about homelessness becoming normalised. He said the only ones shocked now were those up from the country or tourists.
There was a fuss when the number of homeless children passed the 1,000 mark, but hardly a mention when the numbers went over 3,000.
I was persuaded by his argument that “the private sector will never provide housing for low income families” and that we needed to go back to building council houses. He reckoned we had tamed the radical gospel, though I wondered about his idea that the churches talk a lot about sex, but very little about wealth and poverty.
That sounded more like a description of life before the mid 1960’s.
Rev. Brian Anderson, a Methodist, and President of the Irish Council of Churches spoke of a Bible study initiative to explore the problem of homelessness, and also a move where, joined by the Catholic Church they sought to lobby the Government.
He found ordinary people loving and concerned but unsure of what to do about the problem. Sr Jean Quinn is founder of Sophia (an organisation to support the homeless), and director of a United Nations based coalition of Catholic religious congregations. Her main concern was with the homelessness of women and children, the ones that were left behind most. She described how faith based organisations were picking up the work that governments were failing to do.
Finally, I was surprised to hear on last Monday morning’s It Says in the Papers (RTÉ Radio 1) a reference to an Irish Examiner headline about Bishop John Fleming of Killala – ‘Bishop backs parishioners who want female priests’. A reading of the actual story suggests that the headline was, as headlines often are, quite misleading, with the Bishop just passing on the findings of a survey. This was usefully clarified shortly afterwards by Shane Coleman on Newstalk Breakfast, though, by having only Fr Iggy O’Donovan, a supporter of the idea of women priests, to discuss the matter, we only got one side of the story.
Pick of the Week
BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday, September 29, 8.30 pm
In depth discussion of topical religious and ethical matters, with a Northern Ireland flavour.
Life and Soul
RTÉ1, Sunday, September 29, 11 am
Colm Flynn meets a Cork couple, Colette and Anthony Wolfe, who tragically lost their daughter Leanne to suicide and discovered the Christian faith helped them cope.
Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal
BBC4, Thursday, October 3, 9 pm
Science journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson investigate eugenics – the controversial idea that the human race can be improved by selective breeding.