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Saturday, December 23, 2017
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I’m at a point in life where I have almost nothing to do with television anymore. That’s quite a journey for a kid whose life revolved around the 7:30 – 10 PM TV prime time period 7 nights a week. I don’t remember spending a whole lot of time on homework in those days, because I had to get in my TV! Obviously I wasn’t the best of students (until the last 2 years of high school, when TV started losing some of its charm). About the only time I see any TV these days is when I’m visiting my brother on Friday nights. We go out to dinner, and then we hang out at his house for a while, usually with the TV on. But most of the time, nothing much of interest is on, it’s just sort of a background noise generator.

However, a few months ago, we decided to explore an interesting looking program icon for an HBO series entitled “The Young Pope”. The little blurb that popped up from the icon indicated that this was a fictional story about an American being elected Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. Given that my brother is still a fairly devout practicing Catholic and given that I am still a God-centric spiritualist who takes Jesus and his heritage (both Christian and Jewish) very seriously, we both gave the TV a lot more attention than usual on Friday nights.

Neither of us had done any research on The Young Pope, so we really didn’t know what to expect. Being an HBO show that was produced and released within the past year or so, we did not expect TYP to be another “Going My Way” (a sentimental 1944 movie about a Catholic priest played by Bing Crosby, with a follow up 1962 TV series with Gene Kelly). Actually though we were both probably hoping for something likeNothing Sacred”, a short-lived 1997 series about an idealistic young priest doing the work of God in an inner-city parish while struggling against Catholic traditionalism.

But it turned out that The Young Pope was a whole new kind of animal. In a nutshell, the plot revolved around a relatively young American Cardinal named Lenny Belardo (expertly played by British actor Jude Law), who is unexpectedly elected as Pope after the Church fathers get hung up between two popular liberal and conservative candidates. Belardo is seen as a compromise, but turns out to be more conservative than the older conservative candidate, Cardinal Spencer, who had ironically also served as Lenny’s mentor. And more damaged and unpredictable. TYP producer Pablo Sorrentino decided to put as much weirdness into this show as possible without making going over the top in terms of credibility.

Also, a whole lot of sex has been added, occurring mainly amidst those professed to chastity before the Church. That might have seemed unrealistic back in the “Going My Way” days, but today is pretty much expected. Some people have called this show a Catholic version of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series from the 1990’s, which was celebrated for its off-kilter nature. “There isn’t a single moment in The Young Pope that’s not flamboyantly demented” per Rolling Stone Magazine. One of the more innocently weird elements is the kangaroo that the new Pope was presented as a gift from someone in Australia, and which Lenny freed from its cage and allowed to live within the gardens of the Vatican, until it was mysteriously slaughtered in episode 8.

BUT … so much of that bizarre / quirky nature of TYP reflects real Catholicism, in all its ancient complexity, with all of its historical accumulation (accretion) of superstitious spiritual elements and traditions from the course of its 21 year history. Much from the Middle Ages has been retained and embraced in Church tradition and doctrine; so there is no denying the “absurdist” nature of certain elements of church doctrine, tradition and teachings. All of this is a fat target for satire, and it is surprising that it took so long for the cynical entertainers of today to get to it.

I’m not going to recap the entire series; my blog posts can be very long, but it would take a small book to do justice to the intricacies that Sorrentino built into this short but very densely scripted series. I will assume that the reader is more or less familiar with the story arc as it evolved over ten episodes. If you are not familiar with the TYP story but would like to brush up on it, you can get a good episode by episode re-cap starting with this article.

What I would like to do is to offer some comments and observations about how I reacted to TYP, what I noticed, and what it might ultimately mean, from my own perspective. Of course, I won’t make this short, and by the end of this note, I will have reviewed a lot of the important events in TYP (but not all . . . still way too much packed into this show).

The ultimate theme of TYP appears to go way beyond a fashionable cynicism about worldly political corruption within the nerve center of the Church (although that is a big part of the plot, i.e. the Vatican becoming a caricature of House of Cards). The “meta-theme” of Young Pope also transcends the sexual corruption on display, e.g. Cardinal Dussolier’s mini-orgies, Cardinal Kurtweil’s exploitation of boys and young men, and the super-nun Sister Antonia, who extorts clean water in return for for sexual favors at her African missionary camp. What really lies at the heart of TYP is the story of Lenny’s long-lost vision of a wonderful, happy childhood, abruptly ended by his sudden abandonment by his “free spirit” parents who abandoned him to a Catholic orphanage.

The underlying psychology infused by Sorrentino into Lenny, aka Pope Pius 13th, is his not giving up on his childhood vision, his continuing search for the reason why his parents left him, and for the abandoning parents themselves. It is Psych 101 that Pope Lenny unexpectedly becomes ultra-conservative after taking the reins of power because of his reaction against his parents choosing to purse a more hedonistic, worldly lifestyle without him.

Given all the weirdness and fashionable anti-Church cynicism in TYP, you would expect Sorrentino to mercilessly wield an axe against God and Catholicism. But that turns out not to be the case. One interesting and somewhat unrealistic point was the general lack of Jesus Christ talk amidst the Pope and the Church big-wigs. You don’t hear much about Christ the Savior; most of the talk goes straight to God. In real life, every third word or so in the mouths of the Church leaders is about Christ. Had a real-life Lenny Belardo ascended to the throne of Peter and talked incessantly about God without any reference to Christ, most of the Cardinals and priests would become very upset before long, and possibly try to initiate whatever the Church might allow regarding a mutiny against an unhinged Pope.

So it’s pretty clear that Lenny and Sorentino, want to move past Jesus and go straight to the question of whether there is a God or not. And that question actually occupies a fair portion of Pope Lenny’s script. Sometimes he seems to be a firm believer, and at other times he sounds like a professed atheist. Which is strange in a way, because if anyone has reason to believe in God, it would seem to be Lenny. According to the plot, Lenny has triggered at least three instances of miraculous divine interventions because of his fervent prayers. This brings up another peculiarity about this show – if Sorentino is such a typically cynical modern writer and thinker, then why does TYP unquestioningly present what are apparently real live miracles? Was Sorentino keeping the door open to the possibility of God, and maybe also to the validity of a Church that puts so much stock in miracle stories?

In that vein, it is also interesting that Sorrentino kept Lenny immune to the mounds of corruption festering about him, both political and sexual. I have already mentioned the sexual indulgences of the Church princes in TYP, and there is likewise a whole lot of power corruption involving Cardinals Spencer and Voliello. But Lenny takes to two men who Sorrentino keep above both of these pitfalls, Monsignors Gutierrez and Tomaso (who Lenny later promote to full-fledged Cardinals). These are the good and holy men, those who keep the system from falling, despite their own bad habits such as alcohol abuse. As such, Sorrentino is giving us a cocktail blending modern cynicism and corruption with the possibility that there is still some inherent value and goodness in the Church, and in the struggle to find God – which of course which is metaphorically reflected in Lenny’s search for the parents who abandoned him.

God and abandonment – in some ways we know in our hearts that God exists, and yet, the cruel realities of the world tell us that God is dead, or even if living has totally abandoned us. If that is true, then all of the Catholic Church, even its most sublime elements, is just an exercise in futility. It’s all in vain. And yet, Sorrentino drops many hints that the Church may not be in vain.

For all of the corrupt, cynical or at best hapless Church leaders surrounding Pius the 13th, there stands out a mysterious old man — the ancient Cardinal Caltanissetta. Caltanissetta is also a bundle of paradox, with his oxygen mask and portable breathalyzer for an apparent lung disease, along with his frequent puffs on a cigarette. But Caltanissetta is the cardinal in the power circle who seems to retain integrity and true spirituality, the one who commands the respect of his fellow princes. He uses his influence to squelch the more Machiavellian plots of Voliello and Spencer, who wish to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Young Pope so as to bring him down.

Caltanissetta somehow seems to “get” Lenny, despite all the confusion and consternation about this young pope expressed by power-broker Cardinal Voliello (and the bitterly disappointed Cardinal Spencer). Recall the scene in an early episode showing Caltanissetta smiling when Lenny frees the kangaroo to roam the gardens, while everyone else looks on in stunned confusion. This reminded me of the Buddhist story about Gautama silently lifting a flower before his followers, and only one, Mahakasyapa, smiling in response. So Buddha gave a special dharma transmission to Mahakasyapa, entrusting his teaching legacy to him. Since the Buddha was getting on in years, Mahakasyapa became his successor from that day forward.

Well, Lenny didn’t give Caltanissetta anything special; in fact, there were few interactions between the two in the series. But in the third episode, Caltanissetta did confront the new Pope with a few challenging thoughts, and unlike his condescending disregard for most everyone else in the Vatican, Lenny just stood quietly before the mysterious octogenarian with the pointing finger and struggling breath.

An article in Variety summed up what Sorrentino was getting at in TYP: “God’s presence or absence, the bounds of holiness, how power can be wielded in an institution that preaches humility.” In the end Sorrention and TYP do not leave God and the Church for dead. There is a faint but transcendent signal that tries to emerge, but that can be lost amidst all of the noise, amidst TYP’s “entertaining weirdness”, its sexual entertainment, political intrigue, and the fashionable cynicism which the typical viewer will respond with.

That faint signal is a spiritual one . . . the notion that maybe God isn’t a joke, despite the perversions imposed by humankind when it attempts to institutionalize (and exploit) the popular instinct for God through religion. Lenny finally emerges as a man who has remained true to the church, someone untouched by scandal, someone who has maintained his chastity, someone who believes in prayer (and has a few miracles under his belt); and yet, someone who wrestles with doubt about God (despite his miracles), and with his own un-charitable nature.

As noted before, even the best characters in TYP have their Achilles heel. Lenny expresses his own through an insensitive intransigence, as when yelling at the nun who cries at her sister’s funeral, banning those who he doesn’t like to Alaska as punishment, his intentional humiliation of the cardinals (kissing his feet after his talk), his insulting the Harvard-trained Sofia, the “marketing guru”, about the decline of her alma mater ahd her not being up on pop culture. And then there is his rigid anti-gay sentiments and his strict rule banning women who had abortions from forgiveness (can’t receive the sacraments anymore).

Sorrentino does drop a few hints in the final episode that Lenny is moving past some of his rigid faults, e.g. his appointment of now Cardinal Gutierrez as his personal secretary despite Gutierrez’s admission of being gay. And he finally moves past his obsession with hiding himself from public view (which stemmed more from a desire to seem more mysteriously powerful and wise than in self-deprecating piety), giving a Christmas address in Venice during the light of day. But a bright future for a newly humanized Pope Pius is not to be. Venice was an intentional venue for the Young Pope’s first photo op, given that it was the city where he was abandoned by his hippie parents. Might they still be there? Lenny brings a mini-telescope to the balcony, and after concluding his speech, he scans the crowd. And yes – there they are!!! Or maybe, anyway – when he looked twice they were gone (again the parallels with the fleeting mystery of “God moments”).

But then Jesus finally makes his grand appearance! Pope Lenny, despite seeming to be in ruddy good health, has a bad cigarette habit. In an earlier episode, he fell down in a swoon – why? In the final moment of the show, the swoon comes back, this time with Lenny clutching at his heart and a cardinal ordering that a doctor be called. He falls down and looks up – and yes, there in the clouds is a possible but unlikely cloud formation – one that look unmistakably like Jesus!! (I guess that Sorrentino is riffing on “Our Lady of the Tortilla”.)

So, Sorrentino ends the show in mystery – did Lenny really see his parents? Did he really see Jesus? Or was it all just an unlikely but scientifically feasible coincidence? Many modern people today have moved past such mystery. They live in a world of science and psychology, of rationality and results. And they look to intelligent writers and producers like Sorrentino for their entertainment. But despite the rationalist leanings of his viewers, Sorrentino refuses to close the door, to either God or to the Church. Yes, there is much suffering in the world; yes, even if there is a God, that God so often seems to have abandoned us. And yes, the existence of a sentient, supposedly-caring God does not line up with what our data on the universe tells us about it, as interpreted through the brilliance of our scientists and mathematicians.

And yet . . . and yet, The Young Pope is not a television experience to be taken lightly or to be easily forgotten. Supposedly Sorrentino is working on something like a sequel, called “The New Pope” (assumedly Pope Pius XIII has died or has resigned for medical incapacity). I hope that he can maintain in that series something of the profound mystery that unexpectedly emerged amidst all of the buzzing, entertaining worldliness and weirdness of The Young Pope.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:31 pm      

  1. Jim, Actually, I should disqualify myself from any comment on this post as I have not seen “The Young Pope” and probably won’t if it doesn’t have closed captioning. (I need CC cuz I have difficulty hearing. Besides, the person who watches movies in my house has “Suits” as a kind of obsession, and it will be a while until TYP comes up to see if it has CC or not. Well, that’s my excuse, I guess.) I just don’t watch that much TV any more; but I have been known to be addicted to my own particular shows here and there.

    So these will be my random, note that word well, tho’ts on your tho’ts re the movie “TYP”. While I have not seen TYP (I’ll adopt your abbreviation), perhaps I can comment on YOUR comments re the movie. I’ll see how that works out; feel free to say I have no business saying much about this movie as I haven’t seen it and simply refuse to post this comment.

    I hesitate to say this, but I spent 15 years of my life in a convent, pre-Vatican II. That, I think, turns out to be about 18% (plus or minus) of my life at this point, which is not all that much. HOWEVER I might say that I still carry within me much of that time; and I know it will never leave me, EVER. So that time in my life has a rather large influence on what I’ll be saying here.

    I’ve found out in my life that people who’ve spent no time in religious life, or perhaps a much shorter time, say a couple of years or even a couple of MONTHS in religious life and/or “WANTED TO BE” a religious seem to think they have full knowledge of what such a life is.

    While I was not privy to any of the orders of the priesthood; females not allowed to even THINK they might like to be priests, I think I do have a grasp of what a general approach to “religious” life is.

    It seems to me that you somehow seem “shocked” or in a state of incredulity re the fact that priests are first of all human beings. They do not leave behind or lose their humanness when they become priests.

    Furthermore, while (I say again) I’ve never been able to reach the hallowed areas of the priesthood, to say nothing of the various “higher” realms of monsignor, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, to say nothing of “Pope”, I have had occasion to learn some things about those rarified realms of the RC.

    I tend to see, for good reason, any priest who climbs the ladder above the bottom rung of “priest” ending up much like our governmental politicians: having to make a lot of compromises to gain some small amount of power; and having gained that power realize how cramped and unable they are to exercise it as they tho’t they might be able to do at one time. They find that they have to outright “kiss a lot of rings” (I’ll put it that way) to gain the next step “up”, much like anybody who might want to end up in the House of Representatives, be a senator, to say nothing of what must be involved in climbing as far as the presidency.

    (And here I might think of our vice-president, who according to one article on him I read recently in latest “The Atlantic” feels he’s destined someday to be president. Thus he is willing to “kiss the ring” of the current president as he “waits in line” for what he feels will inevitably be his, the presidency. This may sound unconnected, but I am making a comparison here, and I feel the comparison is so close that I cannot leave out reference to it.)

    I might say that initially Pope Francis seemed to be an exception to this rule. Yet as I’ve read this last year, it seems Pope F himself is meeting a great deal of opposition to his kind and gentle approach to understanding the human being and making allowances for humans being humans. If you’ve noticed, he looks different. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of having lost weight; YET there seems to be something deeper, a kind of realization that he’s not going to be able to do what he wants to do. Then again, I very likely am reading my own tho’ts into most of this.

    As to the sex that goes on in TYP: I may be wrong, but I think you have “celibacy” and “chastity” confused. “Celibacy” refers to never MARRYING. So technically, “celibacy” does not exclude sex; it excludes MARRIAGE. “Chastity”, however, excludes sex.

    So, over the years I’ve heard of priests who either have a woman they are in love with who does not live with them OR have a “housekeeper” of the rectory whom the priest refuses to ever leave behind should he move to another parish. I’ve even heard of priests being advised when they find they are in love with a woman to “not marry her” but “live with” her cuz for a priest “living with” (having sex with) can be confessed and forgiven whereas marriage cannot be. (A critical use of both the meaning of the term “celibacy” and of what the confessional can do to make a person feel “right with God” again [till the next time, I might say].)

    Then again, think in terms of some of the popes, especially those in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries who not only had children but made them cardinals and leaders of the church.

    Last night as I watched the Midnight Mass from the Vatican I was dumbfounded by the beauty of the cathedral, thinking surely people who must have been saints had built that beauty; but then I realized that most probably the popes and the powerful of the church who built that were only too human themselves. Here include most likely almost every sin known to man. What a contradiction it seemed to me.

    Today it is well known among some that the female religious in Africa are considered to be at the sexual discretion of the priests and bishops, considered to be “for their use”. The sisters have been complaining much about this problem. At this point I’m not sure how much of this problem has been “solved” yet.

    As to the Middle Ages, I think often people looking back on those times do not realize that at those times people did not have the knowledge that we have some 1000 to 1500 years later.

    When it comes to the “weird elements” you mention (such as the kangaroo business): Well, priests and even Popes have their own peculiarities; why deny them the humanness they have. As I have seen people over my lifetime, each of us has our own “weirdness”, the problem comes when the “weirdness” does not conform to other people’s “weirdness-es”. Then, for the most part those people are considered, eccentric, odd, goofy, crazy, depending on how much they lack in “overlap” with others’ ideas of what it is like to be human.

    So popes, priests, cardinals, etc., are all human and have their “weirdness-es”; some of them even have the same goal for power within a religious realm other have within a political realm.

    Toward the end of the 20th century there were some shocking stories of church leaders likely being caught up in the Mafia and in money laundering, etc. In fact, there is still a question concerning the “Institute for the Works of Religion” which is a fancy name for the Vatican Bank, which it seems has a still serious, unresolved problems when it comes to laundering drug money. Much of that whole story is being kept silent.

    In fact, it seems “The Young Pope” might be a much watered down story compared to some of the things that might really be going on in real life.

    THEN, there is what seems to be the main question: Where does God fit into all of these shenanigans going on and how does the search for God mirror and/or is a substitute for Pope Lenny’s search for his birth parents. This to me is another one of those “human” things that applies to those people who feel abandoned by their birth parents and have been accepted by their adopted (or step) parents. I have some small acquaintance with this problem in lives of two people I know quite well. And my conclusion is that I wonder if it can ever be solved due to the fact that even should the birth family be found, the fact remains that the mother, father, or both at some time abandoned the child.

    As to the comparison to the search for God: I find myself saying, “What else is new?” The comparison between a search for God and a search for birth parents is probably right on the mark. Most people (even great saints) at some time or other feel abandoned by God, at least so it seems to me. Think John of the Cross and the “dark night of the soul” altho it seems his “dark night” was more depression than abandonment by his parents. Think also Sister Teresa who also suffered from severe depression. In the end a person caught in a either situation (abandonment by birth parents or depression) will search for a resolution that likely will not come the way he/she hopes for it to come; it may not come at all. This mirrors the search for God that many people sometimes do not realize they are involved in until many years later.

    It seems to me that the director/author of TYP has picked and chosen various problems and issues the church as a whole has had from various times in the 2000+ history of the Roman Church and combined them into a fascinating story that deals with the humanness of the “powers” that govern he church but also shows how these problems are mirrored in the humanness of those in power in the RC.

    I might add here that the saints themselves, when details of their lives have come to be known, had much the same humanness: good aspects, bad aspects, neutral aspects as the church has. One such example is the late Pope John Paul II (quickly made a saint after his death) who refused to “see” any problem with the priest leader of a small schismatic group in Spain whose priest leader had not only ONE family but two; a woman in two different countries, both of whom had children by him. He was known to hand JPII a few hundred thousand dollars and then remain in his position heading the small cult he headed. Yes, JPII was ill; nevertheless serious questions arose regarding that situation. YET he was made a saint almost by public proclamation and the powers that “were” at the time allowed his canonization.

    It would seem to me that what the author of TYP is saying is that even at the highest realms of “the church” the search for God still exists; the answers regarding that search do not come easily and are filled with humanness.

    Come to think of it, it may be that that’s exactly what the “incarnation” was about (and it’s CHRISTMAS!: that somehow or other God reveals himself to each of us thru the humanness of other humans. Perhaps those in search of God, whether they know it or not, need to look to see God in those who come into their lives, accept those humans, love them, and thru that acceptance and love gain a bit of “god-ness” themselves. (And note I carefully embed a whole bunch of “perhaps’s”.) MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 25, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

  2. Mary, thanks for the good and well considered thoughts — your post is a blog entry in itself !! You hit the nail on the head in your second to last paragraph. I.e., you “get it”.

    Let me make two minor points in response to some of your reflections. First, as to me being “shocked” at the all-too-common licentious and Machiavellian behavior of certain men and women of the cloth . . . remember that I worked for a decade at a non-profit agency that was headed by a “super priest” (a monsignor, none the less), and I got to know and see his various dark-sides. Which cannot take away from all the good that he did do for the poor and disadvantaged in the community where he worked, but, it certainly might “scandalize” certain Catholics had they know all the gritty details about him. As to me being shocked by what Sorrentino was presenting, no, I’m afraid that I had been inoculated many years ago against that.

    Second, thank you for the explanation of celibacy versus chastity. Notice that I did not use the word ‘celibacy’ in my post, only ‘chastity’. So I was only referring to the Catholic clerical vows that priests never engage in sex of any type. Let’s see, the Catholic Encyclopedia definition of “celibacy” indicates that “Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage implicitly or explicitly made, for the more perfect observance of chastity, by all those who receive the Sacrament of Orders in any of the higher grades”. So maybe I should have referred to celibacy to cover both “no marriage” and “no sex” — that would have covered everything. But the matter of priests wanting to be married never came up in TYP; priests and nuns having sex was Sorrentino’s main focus. So I think that I got it right, although it doesn’t matter much, both celibacy and chastity vows are relevant to TYP.

    Aside from that quibbling, your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated. Jim G

    Comment by Jim G — December 26, 2017 @ 11:39 am

  3. Jim, If I may add a comment to your response to my comment: Yes, there was/is a “little” amount of sex going on between priests and nuns, but a lot less than the ordinary lay person “not in the know” seems to think. Other “stuff” may be going on that is concealed by the idea of “priests and nuns” having their way with each other. If lay people only knew, I used to think to myself! (And here I’m NOT talking about a female version of abuse of young/minor children.)

    And another point: The whole business of “celibacy” is more technically “no marriage” rather than “no sex”; “no sex” is IMPLIED but is not expressly a matter of what the meaning of “celibacy” is, unless more recent times have changed that definition.

    The whole business of “celibacy” came to be a “concern” when it was found either before or after the turn of the first to second millennium (in a period that scanned that time) that married priests, who were the norm at the time (with the priest’s wife serving much like a deacon would today) would leave the property of the parish to his children rather than to the CHURCH! Over time parishes became endowed with a LOT of property by those who died.

    The Church woke up and said (I paraphrase and put in today’s vernacular): Hey! That parish property belongs to the Church NOT to your wife and/or kids! So the wives of the priests were summarily sent to convents to spend the rest of their lives there and the priests were told to give up their wives and families. (Not much said about the children, as it was a “who cares” when it came to them.) End of discussion. The property belonged to the CHURCH and the church would HAVE it, no ifs, ands, or buts.

    That’s the origin of “celibacy”. The first thousand years all priests married. Think the apostles and disciples in Jesus’ time. No self-respecting man went unmarried in Jesus’ time. There’s a lot about that whole subject in the writings of women-priest movement, i.e., those women who want to be priests and a few of whom have actually been ordained by bishops (who have kept VERY QUIET about having ordained women). There is also a lot about it in the study of women priests in the early church (as in the first 10 centuries.

    In the end, it’s the human being who SEARCHES for meaning; that seems to be the only thing that matters in the end. All the rest turns out to be, in the end, a means to forwarding the search in one’s life. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 26, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

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