In documentary, Pope Francis urges ‘a poor church for the poor’


It’s tempting to forgo a regular review of the new documentary on Pope Francis and simply print as many of the film’s laudable quotations from this remarkable man as space will allow. His words are plain and direct, full of wisdom and not a little humor. The movie won’t convert any of Francis’ die-hard opponents, who will deride it as uncritical, but it will offer consolation to many viewers, and challenges to most.

“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” reports that its subject — the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio — achieved many “firsts” when elected pope in 2013: the first pope from the Americas and from the Southern Hemisphere; the first Jesuit pope; and the first to take his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi.

The name choice was apt. St. Francis, the film points out, was a kind of revolutionary, embracing poverty, finding holiness in nature and generally “taking the gospel seriously.” For his part, Pope Francis has rejected some of the privileges of the papacy, has spoken frequently of the importance of being good stewards of the earth and has urged all who will listen that we should all “become a bit poorer” and that he would like to see “a poor church for the poor.”

Such sentiments have earned the ire of political and religious conservatives, who have argued that Francis’ stands on income inequality and the environment are reminiscent of socialism. He has repeatedly made strong statements on behalf of immigrants and refugees. He carries these messages in travels throughout the world, to religious audiences, including Jews and Muslims, and non-religious bodies, such as the United Nations and a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

“Jesus tells us in the gospels,” Francis says, “that no one can serve two masters,” and that we can either serve God or serve money. And he does not spare his own church from criticism. Addressing the Roman Curia, a key body of church governance, he pointedly names an assortment of what he calls “maladies” that church officials may be prone to and which divide the church from those it’s supposed to serve.

He urges the clergy — and all who will listen — to avoid a “proseltyzing attitude,” and says priests should “talk little, and listen a lot,” and look directly into the eyes of those they are speaking with. These are matters, I think it’s safe to say, that haven’t always been in the forefront of papal concerns.

It’s a bit of a surprise that the film was directed by Wim Wenders, who came to the cinematic forefront in the 1970s as a part of the New German Cinema movement that included Werner Herzog and R.W. Fassbinder. Wenders’ long career, including “Kings of the Road” (1976), “Wings of Desire” (1987) and “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999), wouldn’t necessarily indicate an interest in the papacy (although “Wings of Desire” has angels among its characters).

The director is clearly an admirer of Francis (both the saint and the pope) and was able to conduct extensive and exclusive interviews with the pontiff. Wenders’ one misstep is using wordless, black-and-white footage he shot re-creating important episodes from St. Francis life, scenes suggestive of melodramatic early silent movies. This footage has unfortunate, and I believe unintended, overtones of religious kitsch.

Early in the film, Francis tells a young visitor to the Vatican that he did not seek to become pope, and pokes a bit of fun at anyone who might want the job. But after listening to the pontiff, and watching him visit refugee camps, wash the feet of prisoners and engage in many other humane and exemplary actions, we can’t help but agree with the assessment of an aged nun, an old acquaintance of his from Argentina: “His life is a sermon.”



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