Connecting with God in “The Two Popes”

9 min read

When Netflix announced the release of The Two Popes, I had already decided I would watch the film, despite the varying reviews that might have normally averted me. It was about the Vatican, the Papacy, and the Catholic faith and it was creating Hollywood buzz, so I wanted to partake in the public discussion. In short, The Two Popes is a story loosely based on true events illustrating a series of fictional encounters between Pope Benedict XVI (now Emeritus) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis). Since watching the entire movie and re-watching certain significant dialogues, I’ve read both positive praises and negative critiques of the film; overall, the positive praises applaud the script for portraying “its adversaries as passionate humans who move us and make us laugh while they’re having at each other in search of common theological ground”1,  while the negative critiques condemn the film as bearing “no resemblance to the real-life men they were supposed to represent.”2 In the positive reviews, entertainment triumphs throughout the light-hearted script and heart-warming finale. In the negative reviews, gross misrepresentations are said to creep into the perception of the audience, who watch as Pope Benedict XVI appears onscreen as an egotistical, power-hungry traditionalist that offers the more liberal and sensitive Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio almost no warmth or courtesy.

Regardless of my opinions, reservations, and questions on the dramatized plotline, there was one thing the two main characters, the two successors to the Seat of Saint Peter, the two most recent popes disclosed to each other that they had in common: amid their constant philosophical and social jousting, it was refreshing to hear both Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio confess to each other their trouble with prayer. During the scene at Castel Gandolfo when Pope Benedict XVI invites his soon-to-be successor to the papal summer home, the German pope divulges to the Argentinian cardinal: “You know, the hardest thing is to listen, to hear His voice. God’s voice.” 

Cardinal Bergoglio pauses, then asks, “Sorry, even for a pope?” 

“Perhaps especially for a pope,” responds Pope Benedict XVI.

Towards the end of the movie, as Cardinal Bergoglio is confessing to Pope Benedict XVI the political compromises he made during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s, the scene flashes back to a homily he says during a mass as a young priest after he is extradited by the Jesuit order to a remote village: 

“I had a TV. I liked to watch football. A TV needs an antenna and a signal. Sometimes the signal is bad. We don’t know why, but sometimes it doesn’t work. It’s the same when we pray. Sometimes the signal God sense us is strong and clear. It works fine. One feels the connection… But other days, one can only say, ‘Well, at least I tried.’ But you’ve gotten nothing back.”

Despite the fictional nature of the film and granted the two popes may have never uttered those exact words, the story offers us the consolation that everyone experiences a similar type of spiritual darkness at some point in their lives. Whether someone is a non-practicing Catholic, a pope, or even a canonized saint, this “bad signal” with God can happen to anyone. Saint Teresa of Calcutta, for example, is seen by many as the embodiment of Christ’s call for us to live in poverty and to help the poorest among us, yet she even lived through long, desperate, hopeless periods of time where she didn’t see God in the work she did. For many years, she wrote a series of letters, preserved by the Vatican for the process of her beatification and later canonization, many of which echoed the same sentiment of spiritual darkness: “I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on whom I can cling—no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone.”3 Her search for a response isn’t unique, and prayer didn’t come any easier to her because she lived the life of a saint.

“You say, ‘Father, that doesn’t happen to you.’ People believe that for us it’s different, that we have a direct line with God,” continues young Bergoglio in this homily scene. “No, it’s not like that.” 

How often do we also experience this spiritual darkness, this bad connection, this silence from God? Prayer is our method of communication, but there are times where no amount of meditation or focus on Him seems to provide any response or guidance. We’ve all experienced this, no matter our role in the Church, and we are not alone in our seeming isolation. 

Perhaps our faith perseveres despite these dark times because we believe God is still present to us, even if we cannot hear him. As the USCCB beautifully summarizes, 

“God invites us into a relationship with Him that is both personal and communal. He speaks to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh. Prayer is our response to God who is already speaking or, better yet, revealing Himself to us. Therefore, prayer is not merely an exchange of words, but it engages the whole person in a relationship with God the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.”4

But the Catholic Church doesn’t expect prayer to be as simple as this relationship might seem. The Catechism (which has several awesome sections discussing prayer – I highly recommend a read through them!) tells us, “Prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God.”5

Prayer is how we build our essential relationship with God, yet prayer is also a battle. In battle, we are afflicted. St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says, “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). Like other areas in our faith lives, our belief in God’s presence, through prayer, must conquer our temptations to give up and say, “Well, I guess God just isn’t hearing me,” or, “Maybe my petition isn’t important.” I’ve often had bad connections with God. Mother Teresa often had bad connections with God. Even in The Two Popes, both Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio had bad connections with God. Prayer is a common practice, and often a struggle, that affects each of us, old and young, liberal and conservative, pope and layperson, saint and sinner. No one has a perfect connection with God, but we can offer Him our continued prayer and a humble heart, leaving our thanks and petitions at the feet of his Son, who told us: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”6

  1. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-two-popes-review-a-holy-must-see-11574884970
  2. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/12/two-popes-too-many-untruths
  3. https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit/mother-teresa-a-saint-who-conquered-darkness
  4. http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/
  5. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c3a2.htm
  6. http://www.usccb.org/bible/john/15