Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (PG)
St Francis of Assisi travelled to the Holy Land 800 years ago to try and end a war. Today his successor is continuing that journey.
Pope Francis – ‘Papa Francesco!’ to the crowds who swarm around him in his native Argentina – has made it his mission to continue the work of his namesake, a man of equal gentleness and dignity. His reverence for the saint has made Assisi, this engrossing documentary informs us, into a spiritual centre for all religions today. “St Francis knew how to listen,” he assures us.
A little longer than 800 years ago, two millennia in fact, another evangelist trod the earth. Francis has embraced his message too. “God doesn’t listen with his ears,” he observes, “he listens with his heart.”
If Francis’ papacy has shown us anything it’s his ability to listen. It’s given him the ability to empathise with those ravaged by war, famine, uprooting, poverty, death. The man behind Laudato Si’ has made it his business to lend his voice to all the major problems afflicting the world ever since he donned ‘the shoes of the fisherman’ to try and give the Church the leadership it seems to have lacked since Pope John Paul II died.
The more powerful one is, he reflects, the greater the need for humility. Great power comes with great responsibility. Sometimes – as with the abuse of nuclear power in places like Hiroshima – it has horrific ones.
The film’s subtitle might just as easily be ‘A man of his words’ as ‘A man of his word’. That’s what it really is – a chronicle of his addresses to the public. There’s no fancy editing here, no grand directorial flourishes from Wim Wenders behind the camera. He just turns it on and lets the Pontiff do the rest. The film is like one elongated homily, but without any judgmental sense. “Never take a proselytising attitude,” he advises.
If his message could be summed up in one of those words, it would be ‘inclusiveness’. God doesn’t love Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King any less than the rest of us, he remarks; we’re all brothers whether we like it or not. He wants to unite East and West, Catholic and Hindu, the rich and the poor, those who have too much and those who have too little.
But he drops some harrowing statistics on us: 150 species die each day. Of the eight billion people on earth, a billion of them are hungry. 80% of the world’s wealth resides in the hands of 20% of its population. Do we care about these things? Not enough. There’s a ‘globalisation of indifference’ in the world.
It’s as a result of this that he’s chosen to live in an apartment rather than a luxurious mansion. It’s why he travels in a bishop’s bus whenever he can rather than in a stretch limo. It’s why he visits the sick and deprived… like the Nazarene of 2,000 years ago.
He lectures the Curia on spiritual diseases like vainglory and rivalry. He speaks of the “existential void” causing a lacuna in the collective psyche. He says the curse of modern life is its frenetic pace, the fact that so many of us live with “the accelerator down” thereby endangering our spiritual health, our mental health, our physical health. “On the seventh day,” he reminds us, “God rested.”
As one might have expected, he devotes special attention to the refugee problem plaguing the world at the moment. He says we haven’t seen a crisis of such magnitude since World War II. The devastation caused by contemporary wars is another one of his passions. Deadly weapons are being sold to people with destruction on their minds for one reason and one reason only: money. Such money is, as he puts it, “drenched in blood”.
He also talks about the fact that man is destroying the planet, that he’s looking at it upside down, imagining himself to be its master rather than its caretaker. “We’ve plundered Mother Earth,” he says. Later on he talks about another kind of pollution: the intellectual kind. Even truth (with fake news?) has become an “endangered species”.
But this isn’t a morbid film. Each morning, he tells us, he prays for the gift of humour in his life. A smile, he says, is “the flower of the heart”. He shows his wit in an address he delivers on the subject of marital disharmony. Plates sometimes fly in domestic squabbles, he remarks – to generous laughter. Children can be a headache too. “I won’t say anything about mothers-in-law,” he adds puckishly.
He calls on all parents to play with their children, to try not to forget the day they became engaged to be married. More generally, he asks families not to let the sun go down on an argument.
Wenders’ film has a timely release here, coinciding with his visit to our shores. I’m sure he’ll be repeating some of the sentiments he does here, epithets like some he trots out here: “Tenderness isn’t weakness.” “Our diversity makes us stronger.” “The first saint was a prisoner.” And, my favourite: “You can always add more water to the beans.”
At 96 minutes this isn’t an unduly lengthy film but there are very few topics that aren’t mentioned, like the importance of women in the Church, the indignity of unemployment (“the tragedy of our times”), the importance of not marginalising gay people, the necessity to have ‘zero tolerance’ for paedophilia.
Towards the end he tells a moving story about a woman who wrote to him once to tell him that her eight-year-old nephew, who had terminal cancer, expressed a wish to talk to him.
Francis rang him but he was sleeping so he only got his answering machine. When the boy heard about the call he thought Francis was offended by him not answering. But he rang again the next day, and the next. After the third call the boy died. “He was reconciled,” Francis says, overcome that one so young could have that kind of acceptance.
Moving to the general question of why children suffer – a question asked by the “great” Dostoevsky, as he calls him, he offers this possible answer: God allowed his own ‘child’ to die. It’s not an answer to a question that has puzzled every theologian since the dawn of time but it’s an interesting reflection.
The final message of the documentary is suitably upbeat: “The future has a name and it’s the name of hope.”