A pope and a cardinal meet in the gardens of Castel Gandolfo. It is April 2011, a hot day, even at the papal summer residence outside Rome.
The two men sit in a corner in the shade, every now and then taking a stroll—constantly debating.
This scene in the 17th century Italian garden in the film The Two Popes is central to Fernando Meirelles’s work, which arose from an important fragment in the history of the Catholic Church, when faith, power and sin connected.
The Cardinal says to the Pope: “Our whole church is in need of forgiveness.”
Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio make conversations like this no yelling match, but more like the sound of fire in straw. With impressive acting skills, they each bring a different life history, and diametrically opposite directions.
But in The Two Popes we should not see this pope and cardinal as replica figures of 21st century history. The film does not invite us to see Hopkins as the forbidding spiritual leader formerly called Ratzinger, and Pryce as the humble cardinal from Buenos Aires.
Who we do meet on the screen is a religious leader at a critical moment: corruption has been unearthed in the financial management of the Holy See, pedophilia has been revealed in the priesthood. The Vatican appears to be no longer part of the world. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict sees the Church, which to him is the voice of ‘universal truth’, as beseiged by ‘relativism’.
So the Church must be protected. It is said that Stalin taunted: “How many army divisions does the Pope have?” None, of course. But the Church is a moral force in the midst of a world incited by the arms race, capital, and technology. What will happen if the faithful are overcome by doubt?
Benedict sees that there must be strong limits. There must be walls…In the corner of the Gandolfo gardens, he knows that Cardinal Bergoglio does not like this.
A contrast. Benedict is one note. Since his youth he has mingled more with books than people. He always eats alone and is not familiar with the world of diversity. He loves music (that evening he plays Smetana on the piano), but he does not know that the tango is a dance. He can attempt humor only with a ‘German joke’, which, he admits, “doesn’t have to be funny.”
Bergoglio is the antithesis. He comes from a festive, complicated and traumatic country. Argentina bears the wounds of past dictatorship, a long period of gnawing social inequality.
He is annoyed that Catholicism cannot become new inspiration. He wants the Church to change, but Benedict thinks that changing is the same as compromise with the impermanent world.
“You are my harshest critic,” the Pope says.
He sees Bergoglio’s opposition not only in words. The Cardinal refuses to stay in the luxurious quarters the Vatican has prepared for him. He wears a pair of army boots with laces that come undone, while the Pope wears smart Zara design shoes. “Your shoes are a criticism,” the Holy Father says.
But the film is not entirely a story of confrontation. Gradually, it becomes the story of friendship. Benedict knows that this man from Argentina is sincere. His warmth is spontaneous. He does not keep apart from the nuns staffing the papal palace, the gardeners and the guards. He shouts when watching soccer matches and likes to eat pizza from a local stall.
And even though he does not support Benedict’s stand, there is nothing in his own position that is arrogantly judgmental.
Gradually, the Holy Father reflects. And when they meet again in a room inside the Sistine Chapel, the Pope says, “I disagree with everything you think, say and do. But I think your time has come, Bergoglio.” The Church must change, and Bergoglio is the one who will bring that change. He himself will retire; he wants the Cardinal from Argentina to become the next pope.
Bergoglio refuses. He is not the right person. There is something dark in his past: in the 1970s, to ensure the security of the church and the faithful, he collaborated with the military dictator who had just seized power. When his Jesuit friends formed a movement for democracy, he did not join. They were raided and some of them were murdered. He was accused of treachery, and he felt himself to be a traitor. He sinned.
“Sin is a wound,” he says, “not a stain.” Forgiveness is not enough.
And this also had to be true for Benedict who did not eradicate pedophilia among the clergy.
And the two popes come together. It reminded me of a line in a poem by Soebagio Sastrowardojo: “Through sin we can grow adult.”
Awareness of one’s own sin does not wipe that sin, but it can wipe the sense of holiness and pride, so to be more prepared to reach out to and embrace those who are fragile.
On March 25, 2015, Pope Francis (the former Cardinal Bergoglio) washed the feet of Muslim immigrants who had been forced to flee their homelands. “Truth may be vital, but without love, it is unbearable. Caritas in veritate,” the good man from Argentina said.