Monday, Oct 15, 2018
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Keith Burris

Pope Francis dreams a church

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    Pope Francis waves to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Vatican.

    Getty Images/FRANCO ORIGLIA

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“The world is mostly deaf,” says Pope Francis looking straight into the camera in Wim Wenders’ new film,

Pope Francis is pointing us toward simplicity, toward charity, toward the gospel of renouncement — the steps of Jesus.


VIDEO: Official trailer for ‘Pope Francis, A Man Of His Word’

And there is something else one sees about Francis, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, in this film. Perhaps it is two parts his nature and one part his age — he is 81: Francis is almost completely indifferent to his press clippings, his image, and his legacy. This is the mark of a true servant-leader. He follows his conscience and does his work and leaves the rest in the hands of the Lord.



The film’s approach is not to profile Francis, but to to let him present himself by, first, showing him on the road giving speeches and interacting with the faithful, and, second, through a series of interviews. Mr. Wenders was granted four two-hour sessions, and no topic or question was off the table — not clergy sex abuse, not gay rights, not why God allows the innocent to suffer.

We learn that there are really three pillars to Francis’ theology: The dignity of work, especially work with one’s hands; the importance of the family; and the beauty and sanctity of the earth. He sees one of the greatest threats to the family as our lack of leisure time and the pace of modern life. And he says of the destruction of so much of our water, land, and animal life that none of us are free from blame, or responsibility for change.

His own pace is punishing. He regrets only that he can no longer hear the confessions of ordinary people. He says he wants the church to be close to people. “I am talking about getting involved in people’s lives.” And the film successfully captures his deeply pastoral nature — the way he approaches his flock with a profound gentleness and openness. Or to use his favorite word: mercy.

Francis is a self-described “apostle of the ear.” Say very little, he says, just enough, listen a lot.

This man is the farthest thing from a bureaucrat or a dogmatist. The inside business of the church does not animate him. John Paul II was a philosopher and evangelist. Pope Benedict XVI was a theologian and liturgist. Francis is a pastor. He is interested, almost exclusively in how to live — as persons and as peoples.

Perhaps you have heard about the Chilean Catholic bishops, a subject not covered in the film. Almost all resigned at Francis’ behest. The pope said the church in Chile did not do enough to bring justice to the victims of priest sex abuse in that land. And that he did not do enough. He didn’t understand. And he says he is ashamed. Francis at first defended a friend who was implicated in the scandals. But then he educated himself, and he brought some of the Chilean victims to Rome to meet with him, both as a group and individually. He spent a great deal of time with these people. He wept and prayed with them.

He also told one victim, a man who some tried to discredit because he is gay: “God made you like this and loves you like this and it doesn’t matter to me. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are who are.”

Francis incurred the wrath of some Catholics, and clergy, for declaring, “It can no longer be said that all those living in any irregular situation are living in a state of mortal sin.” He added this: “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth … I understand those who prefer a more rigorous care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

What Francis really wants the church to be is something it is not today, something no church is today — a church of poverty. He wants the church to embrace the poor (the poor in every sense, but starting with lack of material goods and power). And that is why he spends so much time with the dispossessed and have-nots of the world.

For me among the most moving parts of the Wenders film are when he washes the tattooed feet of prisoners and when he tells Filipinos who have been devastated by hurricanes and floods that he is sorry he has so little of use to say to them — only that he sees their suffering and will walk with them, and that God sees them too. He, the pope, is merely representing divine compassion.

Read more by Keith Burris

There is a moment, in the film, when Francis gives communion to a very old and broken Filipino lady, and the woman lingers, as does Francis, as does the camera. No one wants this communion to end. And the power of mercy is visible.

The pope wants the rest of us — the wealthy, the middle class, the political classes and the elites, the clergy — to walk with the poor, too. He wants us to embrace them, care for them, and, in solidarity, live our own lives with less – less anxiety, less want, less pride, less stuff. Thus, his own lifestyle choices — not to live in the papal palace or to ride in a small Fiat rather than a limmo — are misunderstood if seen as high level PR.

“Well if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” said the writer Flannery O’Connor, of the Eucharist. She knew better than anyone that a symbol must also be a sign — pointing to something.

Francis is pointing us toward simplicity, toward charity, toward the gospel of renouncement — the steps of Jesus.

I hope millions will see this film, and that the world will become a little less deaf because of it.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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