Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Wim Wenders—he of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire and, more recently, Pina and The Salt of the Earth fame—has made a documentary about the teachings of Pope Francis. The film is about as straightforward as a documentary can be. Pope Francis looks into your eyes and lays out the things he believes are most urgent for humanity today. Between these interview-like segments, Wenders shows Pope Francis traveling around the world and meeting people. Mostly, he interacts with the masses, but Wenders shows him with the other bishops of the church and world leaders as the subject pertains to them.

There is one other narrative strain woven throughout the documentary that feels feels a bit forced. Included alongside the purely documentary elements are recreations of the life of Saint Francis, the twelfth century monk from whom Pope Francis took his papal name. Explicitly, Wenders wants to draw a parallel between the ministries of Saint Francis and Pope Francis, contending that Pope Francis’ teachings are of accord with Saint Francis insistence on the blessedness of poverty, the value of the earth and its creatures, and the inherent honor of the poor, sick, and imprisoned. Wenders posits Saint Francis as a revolutionary for highlighting those things in his time and suggests that Pope Francis is similarly forward-thinking.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis has come into the world as a fresh wind. After the internal reformation of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the subsequent papacy of the conservative Pope John Paul II from 1978 to 2005, and the more intellectual papacy of Pope Benedict XVI from 2005 to 2013, Pope Francis’ engagement with the concerns of the wider world, progressive politics, and concern for the people on-the-ground (literally) in the Church are remarkable. Pope Francis, like the saint whose name he bears, via his teachings challenges the established powers of the world, both in the Catholic church and out.

And yet, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the one-time chemist and nightclub bouncer, did rise through the ranks of the Jesuits to be named Pope. He accepted the authority offered to him. I don’t mean to suggest that his teachings are less than genuine or that the fact that they come from a seat of immense power should prompt us to question them, but there is something fundamentally different about a pope compared to a impoverished 12th century monk and the homeless, Nazarene rabbi who inspired him.

Jesus and Saint Francis refused power at every turn, and Pope Francis accepted it. Pope Francis is right to espouse the teaching of Jesus regarding the poor, and he’s right to remind us that those in authority have a special responsibility to wield their power justly and for the least amongst us (Pope Francis contends that the most poor citizen of this planet is the planet itself). But if we’re listening to him and taking him seriously, we should question him as well. This documentary does not do that. It artfully dodges anything that might prompt us to check our esteem for Pope Francis. He doesn’t need to be perfect to be a good man worthy of our love. Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, makes me hold my breath waiting for him to break his word and dreading the cultural fall-out of that moment.

Still, the fresh wind continues to blow across the world. In this time of geopolitical turmoil, Pope Francis’ ministry is a spirit-bolstering presence, and this documentary is welcome. I do wish the Church could be known for these things he teaches in this film. They are of accord with Christ, and Christ is supposed to be our model in all things.

P.S. I saw this documentary at an afternoon showtime on the Friday of the film’s release. The only other people in the theater with me were an elderly, Italian woman and her granddaughter. I eavesdropped on their conversation. I heard the elderly woman say, in her thick Italian accent, “I’ve never been to a movie on opening day before!” Everyone has their version of a superhero.