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Two Popes

We are both fans of the actor Anthony Hopkins. Many years ago we saw him dominate the stage in a matinee performance of Pravda at the National Theatre. The play was about apartheid in South Africa. The same evening Hopkins playing the lead in King Lear. What a memory – what a talent!


It was natural then that we were keen to watch The Two Popes soon after it was released. The film imagines story of how Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Francis(played by Jonathan Pryce) each came to be elected as Supreme Pontiff, and the ‘hand-over’ following Benedict’s unprecedented abdication. We actually watched it twice - most unusual for us.


Why did we watch it twice?


There were so many levels of interest. The dialogue is quite funny in places (eg Benedict to Francis: ‘It’s a German joke – no need to laugh’). The colours are vivid. Vatican intrigues, like all church politics are fascinating to follow. It tells some truths difficult for Catholics – and probably many other church leaders - will find it difficult to hear.


But beyond all that it is the story of how two very different personalities who both held tackled an impossible job seek reconciliation with each other. Benedict was a scholar at home in the theological libraries of Germany and Rome. Francis came to the position after committing himself to life with the poor on the city streets of Argentina. Benedict had written about lofty themes, Francis had worked for social justice. Benedict seemed to love all the pomp and ceremonial. Francis was uncomfortable with much of it. He refused the papal red slippers and a lot of the other trappings of office. Benedict would lapse into Latin, Francis loved football and the Argentine tango.


There are several extended scenes, both before and after the papal office changes hands, where the two men seek to understand each other. Not just each other but their two different visions of what the Roman Catholic Church should be in the 21st century. One emphasizes purity even if it means aloofness, the other believes in engagement even if the price looks like compromise.


Slowly they share their dreams and their difficulties with faith. They grow in respect for each other. Whether they ever really understood each other remains an unanswered question.

As in the Church, so in other centres of power. Struggles between different personalities so often lead to rivalry rather than co-operation and team-building. The prevailing model seems to be one of competition. Zero sum games. The market is king. We learn to beat each other, outwit each other, emerge as top dog. At least this has the virtue of being simple.


Collaboration on the other hand is more complex. The talent for it is much rarer. You have to listen – genuinely listen – and that means exercising your imagination, developing empathy and compassion. You have to negotiate mid-way points of agreement. You have to be willing to revise your ideas. To swallow your pride on occasion. Look foolish even. And also decide when it is time to swim against the stream.


Our political leaders do not offer us a model, especially when they occupy impregnable positions. Our sporting heroes are only interested in winning – dirty or otherwise. The church is often not much better. Very few people manage it in public life.


Pope Francis seems to believe that street-level respect and local collaboration give a society its soul. That’s where the messy business of reconciliation happens. Living room, coffee shop, office, factory floor. In those places, each of us, if we choose, can take the opportunity to be a ‘pontiff’ – pontifex – a bridge builder.

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