Pope Benedict XVI: 21st Century Radical
One thing about the Easter holidays is that there’s often stories on magazines focusing on Christianity, Churches, Jesus or other Bible figures. The Pope also becomes subject of cover stories around Easter time. This Easter, there were a lot of good reasons to pay attention to the Pope and the Church, especially this Easter. This also comes to light as April 16th was Pope Benedict’s 84th birthday.
Joseph Ratzinger has been with the Vatican since 1981 when he was voted Cardinal-Prefect for Pope John Paul II. After John Paul’s death, he has led the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict for six years. He has made a lot of news over the years on the actions he’s done and the responses to issues he’s spoken out about. The responses have differed. Some have welcomed his views and his actions. Others are unhappy or even outraged. Even though he is an interim Pope, he has already made his own legacy in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
This Easter weekend, he did something unique for a Pope. On Good Friday, he hosted an international televised dialogue where he answered questions written to the Vatican. Of 3000, he answered seven. This was done so on an Italian television show In His Image which was taped a week earlier.
One question was from a 7 year-old Japanese girl Elena. She asked him to explain the suffering in her country ever since the March earthquake and tsunami. His response: “I ask myself the same question: Why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease? And we do not have the answers, but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent.” He went on to give words of comfort: “even if we are still sad, God is by your side.”
Other questions he asked included one from an Italian man of what Jesus did in between the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. His answer: “The descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey.” An Italian woman asked of the soul of her son who has been in a coma for two years: “The situation . . . is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play . . . The soul cannot be heard, but it remains within.” A woman from the Ivory Coast asked of the violence that’s tearing her country apart: “Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good . . . The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue.”
This is a break from the traditional or expected norm for the Pope. It’s a common belief that the Pope preaches from the pulpit but has no clue of what’s going on in the real world. If that interview has proven something, it’s that the Pope is listening and he is aware of the situations around the world and of people’s concerns. He’s also willing to give answers. Last year, we saw an example of his response to sexual abuse scandal by setting up a council dedicated to the scandal. This year’s example of how he’s willing to answer questions for an Italian television show demonstrated how Pope Benedict is willing to go to connect people with the answers of the Church. This factor is enough to consider Pope Benedict a radical of the Catholic Church.
We shouldn’t forget that during the reign of Pope John Paul II, John Paul came to Benedict for advise and speeches back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. It was because of this that he was heavily expected to be elected Pope after the death of John Paul II. Pope Benedict knew what the job of being Pope was long before he took to the throne. Despite what one believes, he is to represent the moral voice of the Roman Catholic Church to its 1.2 billion followers. He can’t simply ‘go with the times’ or ‘get with the program’ and say ‘yes’ to what is already deemed sin in the Bible. In fact many faithful admire how the Pope is refusing to bless popular sins. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the Church now has a ‘counterculture’ status: “Jesus stood in opposition to the world, in opposition to culture and society. It’s a good thing the Church is against the world.” This is enough to label Pope Benedict a radical of the times.
This is one of the challenges of the Church and of Pope Benedict. He knows that the Catholic Church has to be an example of God’s love. He also knows that the Church has to be a strong moral voice to its followers and condemn sinful acts. Finding a balance between the two is the hard part. This is not the only balancing act Pope Benedict has been trying to do. Another is trying to bring back a lot of common traits of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council from fifty years ago. One of which was encouraging a return to the Latin Mass. He knows how a lot of Catholics left when the Latin Mass was dropped. He also is taking into account the Traditional Catholics that separated themselves from the Vatican after the Council and consider the Church false and the seat of the Pope vacant.
However the biggest surprise I received in terms of the press’ attitutes towards Pope Benedict came in an Article from Maclean’s magazine. It asked “Is The Pope Catholic?” It gave account to a lot of surprising things Pope Benedict has done over his reign and puts them into question. MacLean’s has even highlighted some of his questionable sayings:
From inflaming the Islamic world by quoting medieval anti-Muhammad remarks to welcoming disaffected Anglicans into the Roman fold, becoming personally embroiled in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, endorsing the (sometimes) use of condoms, writing a passage in his newest book exonerating Jews from the charge of killing Christ, and a host of less headline-grabbing initiatives (including a casual acceptance of the theory of evolution).
This was brought to the attention by a book by Canadian author Michael Coren entitled Why Catholics Are Right. Coren defends the Church and Pope Benedict’s actions in the book. However it’s also highlighted that the top concern of Pope Benedict is the spiritual state of Europe. There’s no question that the secularizing of European society has upset Benedict a great deal and he wants Europe to see that the Church has reason in society. He also wants to see Europe return to the Church-based values that helped shaped the continent for centuries. Only time will tell if it does or not.
Interesting the quote above mentions the ‘condom use’ part. Many remember how Pope Benedict mentioned that condom use is justifiable in some cases, like sex with a prostitute. Although it created a lot of news the world over, one thing that was overlooked that that sex with a prostitute remains a mortal sin, condom or no condom.
As Easter passes, the Church will experience another year. As the world becomes more secularized, Pope Benedict carries the Church and its moral voice on his shoulders. Some will welcome what he has to say while some will question and others will be outraged. Nevertheless, the Church has to stand firm on its morals as it carries the conscience of the Church’s 1.2 billion believers. Pope Benedict knows it and he’s ready to meet the challenge.
MACLEAN’S: Is The Pope Catholic?. Macleans.ca. Author: Brian Bethune. 2011. Rogers Media Inc.<http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/04/18/rebel-with-a-cross/>
NEW YORK POST: Pope Benedict Answers Questions On TV On Good Friday.NYPost.com. Author: Andy Soltis.2011. NYP Holdings, Inc. <http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/good_fri_popecast_bXYW6mxE0djUeun3iQ4j5K>
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.