Religions are not claims to
knowledge but ways of living with
what cannot be known.
—John Gray, English philosopher

Two men meet. One intends to resign his position as the archbishop of Argentina. The other intends to abdicate the papacy. A dance ensues—or are they two dogs, sniffing each other out before they can get down to business?

The Two Popes is a Netflix movie about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is a cinematic adaptation of a play that presents a fictional conversation between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis. The two leads do a superb job in their respective roles, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict. Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles, it was a surprise hit at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 and was nominated in 2019 and 2020 for a number of awards.

The Two Popes

Directed by Fernando Meirelles
UK, Italy, 125 minutes

It is a deeply humanistic story. The two men represent different and antagonistic views of the Catholic Church and its role in society. The movie opens with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to be Pope Benedict. Ratzinger is presented as a wily and ambitious politician who knows how to play the game in the College of Cardinals, a staunch conservative who insists on orthodoxy and tradition. At the end of the movie, Cardinal Bergoglio, Ratzinger’s earlier rival for the papacy, is elected to be Pope Francis. Bergoglio is a man of the people—a man who cares about the poor, talks about his hometown soccer team while conducting mass, and chats about the virtues of oregano with a gardener on the papal estate. But he has a past, and we learn about the weight of his past as the movie unfolds.

In the course of their conversation these two leaders come to understand that they have to find a way to reconcile their differences and decide how best to fulfill their respective responsibilities in a religious and cultural environment that is rapidly changing. They dance, and there is both pathos and bathos in their dance. Pope Benedict struggles to understand the joy Cardinal Bergoglio takes in human connection, while Cardinal Bergoglio presents his letter of resignation again and again, only to have Pope Benedict deflect it with one ruse after another. But their dance is not just about the present. It is also about the past.

Last year I was referred to an essay by Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility under a Dictatorship.” The account given here of Cardinal Bergoglio’s past illustrates all too tragically one of Arendt’s principal points, the impossibility of accommodation with a dictatorship. Inevitably, you not only betray yourself, you end up endangering those you are trying to protect. How can Bergoglio possibly shed the burden of guilt he carries for mistakes he made, albeit with the best of intentions?

The movie is a mirror of how religion, particularly institutional religion, operates today.

In a pivotal scene, the two men take turns as priest and confessor, hearing each other’s confession and conferring absolution. This is where the movie moves from the humanistic into the religious. The scene conveys the power of the sacrament of confession, without being maudlin or saccharine. Here you feel God’s power to absolve sin—how the ritual of confession lifts a weight from each of them and enables them to move forward, free from the burden of their pasts. We have no comparable ritual in Buddhism, but like Christians, we do have ways of laying down the burdens of the past.

The quality of forgiveness portrayed here is absent in today’s world of conflicting ideologies. Ideological purity—morality in its coldest and cruelest form—precludes the possibility of forgiveness. I encourage you to watch this movie, if only to see this scene and understand what it means to accept the humanity of even those to whom we are most opposed.

The story reveals in different ways how, even in a life devoted to sacred service, we are still human beings. Yet in one of the final scenes, Pope Benedict reviews the sequence of events that brought them together. In doing so, he compels Cardinal Bergoglio to accept the possibility that larger forces were at play. Only here do the mystery and the awe at the heart of spiritual practice come into view.

The movie is a mirror of how religion, particularly institutional religion, operates today. It reflects how secular concerns have relegated the mystical, the spiritual, and the religious to supporting roles. What takes primacy? In the case of Pope Benedict, academic theology and adherence to tradition. In the case of Cardinal Bergoglio, helping to make lives better and human connection through community. In effect, the two men represent two ways that spiritual practice devolves when it loses its touch with awe and mystery, into academic exegesis on the one hand and humanitarian altruism on the other.

In both cases, the spiritual takes a back seat. We see this in the way that, for example, suffering and bodhicitta (awakening mind, an intention that arises through the union of emptiness and compassion) are commonly misunderstood in Buddhism in the West. When we take practice as the alleviation of the suffering of the human condition, we reduce Buddhism to humanitarian principles. Birth, old age, illness, and death are the human condition. They cannot be avoided, as we are seeing all too clearly today. We suffer because we struggle against these unavoidable aspects of the human condition and everything else in our lives that we find problematic. The true end of suffering is to be at peace in whatever life brings to us. As it is said, nirvana is peace, and we seek to find a peace that passeth understanding, to borrow a phrase from Christianity.

Similarly, in the same way that a peace that passeth understanding is a mystical peace, bodhicitta is a mystical compassion. It is not just altruism. It goes beyond the wish to alleviate the sufferings we encounter in our lives. In classical terms, it is the union of compassion and emptiness. In practical terms, it is the compassion that arises out of emptiness, the intention to help others find the peace that passeth understanding, the compassion that seeks to bring an end to the pain of life itself.

Finally, the movie portrays the hazards of positions of responsibility. Whether you are a pope, a cardinal, the head of a center, or a meditation teacher, or have any other role that involves responsibilities, it is easy to fall into the trap in which the responsibilities of your position take precedence over everything else. In such roles you are often faced with difficult external and internal choices. You may lose touch with your humanity in fulfilling your responsibilities as you see them. You may shut down to life because of the demands placed on you. You may even endanger those who depend on you through your efforts to protect or take care of them. Again, these are all facets of the human condition.

Life is complex. At any moment we may have to make difficult and painful decisions. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the complexity of life that calls us to seek the peace, freedom, and wisdom that come through spiritual practice. This movie, perhaps not intentionally, reminds us of that calling.

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