The Church, as seen through the eyes of Wim Wenders and his recent film Pope Francis: A Man of His World, takes on the appearance of a Church, dirty and bruised. This of course is a reference to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” This is undoubtedly the unspoken theme of the documentary.
Wenders, a non-Catholic Christian, has been inspired by Francis’ focus on social injustices, poverty, those stricken by natural or ecological disasters, those who have been underserved by the Church community in the past. In short, those on the fringes of society. The film is ripe with Wender’s vision of Francis as a new kind of Pope, who has a unique authority to proclaim the truth to the world.
Notably missing from the film were most references to the doctrinal-pastoral debates that have gripped the Church over the past few years. The lack of reference to this more tumultuous side of Francis’ papacy led some commentators to describe the film as “propaganda” or as one commentator obscenely put it, “religious pornography.” Other less biased reviews pointed to the film as taking the Pope “out of context.”
And so the term “documentary” might be wrongly used here. “Portrait” or “profile” conveys the sense of the film, in which a religious leader is given the opportunity to explain what he is about and what is important to him, personally, as a Christian and as the pastor of over a billion souls.
In intimate close-ups, through a film technique which gives the appearance that Francis is speaking directly to the audience, Francis expresses anger at clergy who have abused children. He reveals his familiarity and acceptance with death, even his own death. He gives some practical advice to those who want to live in the joy of Christ.
These close-ups are interlaced with somewhat kitschy, black-and-white reenactments of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, as Wenders draws some parallels, explicit or otherwise, between the medieval saint and the present Pope.
A dominant feature of the film are clips from other films of Francis’ trips around the world, to Brazil, to the Philippines, to Lampedusa. While, of course, I followed Francis’ trip to the United States with great interest, I was unfamiliar with how much he has traveled and, in fact, surprised at the particular places he’s traveled.
His trip to the Philippines, the third visit by a pope in modern history, followed from the major hurricane that struck the nation over a year prior, killing thousands. He visited Lampedusa which can be euphemistically referred to as Italy’s Ellis Island but in reality is little more than a staging area for desperate migrants who must wait while politicians debate their fate.
With images of this poverty and desperation fresh in my mind, then, I read the words of critical Catholics, incredulous that Amoris Laetitia or the dubia would barely register during the film. “Where is the real Francis?” they would write.
Then it hit me: how “real” is the Catholic Church that we find in social media? How “real” is the Francis that gets blogged about? In fact, I think the greatest contribution of Wenders is to capture Francis. Wenders’ Francis is the real Francis, and Francis’ Church is the real Church.
That is to say, the Church is a Church for the fringes, the fringes of society, of prosperity, of health, and yes, even those on the fringes of moral theology. The Church is a hospital for sinners, and it is an ark to preserve people from the storms. Francis’ ministry, as relayed by Wenders, is to go searching for the lost, whoever and wherever they might be.
Francis is “for” these vast majority of fringe Catholics who may have appeared to have been neglected in the past. Even if this is not the reality, even if previous Popes have taken seriously the plight of the poor and the enslaved (and they have), Francis has lived out his mission in a unique way.
Being the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, from the Americas, and from the Jesuit order cements Francis’ unique standing on behalf of a new subset of Catholics. From the very first moment of the new papacy, Francis understood this aspect of his ministry, joking that the Conclave went searching to the “ends of the earth” to find a new pope.
Authentic human development, the kind which can raise people into contemplation of God, presupposes a certain freedom from oppression and from slavery of all kinds that can fill minds with worry, concern, anger, and fear. These emotions can easily crowd out any space for God. Inequality also leads to distrust and a lack of mutual respect within communities. Francis understands that the Church, in furtherance of its evangelical mission, has a duty to do what it can to lift people from the conditions which give rise to these evils. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.
Having rigorous theological debates can no doubt benefit all Christians in the end, but it would be a scandal to do so while remaining blind to those who are truly suffering. Here, I think specifically of the debate following the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Theologically speaking, there were a number of people who were ushered onto a proverbial Lampedusa, prevented from proceeding but unable to go back. They too had to wait while others in the Church debated their fate, and whether or not the Church could truly grant them a path to true freedom in Christ.
Fortunately, for the divorce and remarried, Francis has illuminated one such path.
Wenders, like Francis, has succeeded in highlighting the plight of hundreds of millions of Catholics who live in difficult conditions, where lack of work, poor ecology, natural disasters, a diminished culture, and unjust laws have ravaged whole communities and nations. In this sense, I consider Wenders film to be a success and would encourage others to view it as they can.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.