Eucharist & Culture (September/October 2018)

Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books

Art Review

Wim Wenders, 2018
Holy See,
United States

John Christman, SSS


When Pope Francis speaks off-the-cuff, people listen with piqued interest. Some are excited to hear the Pontiff’s candid thoughts; others are nervous. What will he say? What will it imply for Catholics around the world? How might his words challenge or affirm my own worldview? If the prospect of a free-spoken airplane press conference stirs that kind of allure, then imagine the kind of enthusiasm and apprehension an internationally-released film documenting Pope Francis’ daily thoughts and actions might provoke.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is just this sort of film. Brilliantly directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word breaks with many of the traditional norms associated with documentary filmmaking. It is not a biographical film chronicling the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio from childhood to the present. Nor is it an overly pious rendering of a religious man.

Instead, Wenders opts for a type of immediacy, placing Pope Francis directly in front of the camera and allowing him to speak whatever is on his mind. This, woven together with Vatican footage of Pope Francis’ papacy (of which Wenders was given full access) and buttressed by Wenders’ own brilliant cinematic vision, creates a sense of encounter. Pope Francis looks you directly in the eyes and desires to share with you personally.

In a review in The New Yorker, Paul Elie describes Wenders’ cinematic style in this film as an “aesthetic of nearness.”1 And through this, “we are brought near to Francis and, through Francis, to the people and issues that he is convinced should concern us most.”2

This is an apt and insightful description. Wenders himself is heard introducing the film’s major questions and occasionally weaving the film’s many subjects together into a narrative arc, but it is Pope Francis himself who instigates and elucidates the film’s many subjects.

And the subjects he raises are many: poverty, degradation of the environment, economic exclusion and indifference, forced migration due to violence and lack of resources, the plight of refugees and migrants, clergy sexual abuse, the tragedy of human suffering, the value of family life, interreligious dialogue, the importance of “bridge-building” and peacemaking, and so much more.

The scope of Pope Francis’ vision is wide. The film subtly draws our attention to the wideness of his vision through its cinematography. Throughout the film, Wenders shows us Pope Francis gazing out over the many countries he visits through an airplane window. The vast landscapes and cityscapes stretch out before him. It could easily be an overwhelming and daunting sight for a Church leader with his responsibilities. Yet from those big, wide-angle vistas, we return to intimate close up shots of Pope Francis speaking clearly and concisely to the issues affecting so many people. It is Francis’ gift to see the broader realities and distill them into clear and relatable speech. More than this, as the countless images of Pope Francis embracing the sick, comforting the outcast, and strengthening the downtrodden attest, he practices what he preaches.

Unfortunately, as Pope Francis observes from the very beginning of the film, “The world today is mostly deaf,” and he includes priests among those often deaf to the gospel message he is sharing. Thus, Francis’ words are a challenging wake up call. The discomfort his words cause is palpable, both inside and outside the Church. Outside the Church, we see members of the United States Congress shifting uneasily as Pope Francis addresses issues of migration and gun control. Inside the Church, we see members of the curia sullen-faced as Pope Francis identifies the “illnesses” some of them have fallen prey to, such as “hoarding.”

Viewers will likely be challenged by Pope Francis’ words, and no doubt some will harshly criticize his choice to speak in such a way. Some would prefer he be silent on so many politically-charged issues. However, for Pope Francis, it seems it is more a question of using his voice to stand up for the deeply held Catholic values of preserving the common good and the God-given dignity of every human being.

Impressively, this film witnesses to Pope Francis’ ability to find new, creative avenues to speak to society at large. Earlier popes may have spoken eloquently in Church documents and embarked on trips where they celebrated impressive liturgies with multitudes of people. Like his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis has retained these models, however he continually expands upon them. Whether writing a children’s book responding to the letters of children around the world, opening Saint Peter’s Square to crowds of people to see images of nature and our current environmental situation projected onto the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, or participating in this new film, Pope Francis is tireless in his evangelical outreach.

His words are challenging, but they are rooted in his desire to not only proclaim Christ to the world, but to proclaim the message that Jesus proclaimed in word and deed. In that message there will always be challenges as well as joys. Pope Francis seems to know well both the joys and the challenges. It’s what keeps him smiling and helps us to do the same.


1 Paul Elie, “The Spiritual Nearness of Wim Wenders’s ‘Pope Francis: A Man of His Word’” May 21, 2018. www.newyorker.com, accessed June 2, 2018.
2 www.newyorker.com accessed June 2, 2018.

Photo: Image by Focus Features


Peter and Paul

Paul Jerusalem, 31-32 AD

Near the end of all my studies, rumors first appeared.
He just wasn’t what we wanted, yet was what we truly feared:
A rustic rabbi and a group of thugs
Parlor tricks with loaves & fish, wine & jugs;
Just a nuisance, just a tiny threat . . .
So why is it I can’t forget
His haunting eloquence — reported second-hand
To just our insulated, isolated band
Of students of the real rabbi, Gamaliel the Great?
Danger’s in the very wind; I’ll finish up, go home to Tarsus, pray & wait.
I never really knew him but I grew to love him.

Peter Galilee, 31-33 AD

He came into my boat and changed my luck:
The fish now came to me. And even when I begged him to depart
He would not go away and leave me stuck
With broken dreams from romance lost, with listless will and grieving heart.
He came into my home and touched the fevered brow:
This mother who had watched her daughter fade and die,
Whose heart and mind — grown sick from wond’ring how
Our faithful God could snatch my wife instead of her, and why
She still should hope or care. Contagious was his smile,
His hope-filled touch that healed her bitter soul
And raised her up to wait on us again. His style
Of speaking held us rapt in awe; his healing made us whole.
He came into my life and called to me; he called me “rock,”
He trusted me — and I denied him. Bitter were my tears.
And yet he never gave up hope in me, his love ran deep.
A stretch of beach in morning light, a charcoal fire, the shock
Of icy water as I swam — his words absolved my fears
Of utter worthlessness: “You’ll feed my lambs; you’ll feed my sheep.”
I never really knew him but I grew to love him.

Paul Tarsus to Jerusalem, 33-34 AD

My friends returned to Tarsus filled with stories of a wind and flame
And deacons, languages, and miracles that made me fear the same
Departure from our pure religion. I had made my life’s whole aim
The marketing to Roman hopes and dreams the clear, efficient claim:
One temple and one God are just enough. Yet now this Steven’s spread
Contamination even there. I watched with glee this rival fall
And championed again our awesome temple’s glory. But a dread
Kept gnawing at me: to completely halt the danger, catch them all.
I never really knew him but I grew to love him.

Peter Judea, 34-35 AD

The frequent ridicule and beatings we could face
But Steven’s murder hit us hard. Some chose to hide;
The other brand-new deacons scattered far and wide.
Yet even on those distant paths the Spirit’s guid-
Ing presence called to Philip: “Go, run up beside
The Ethiopian and share your message, bring my grace.”
That great and Holy Spirit led us everywhere:
From Joppa to a gentile’s home. Yet do we dare
Bestow the children’s bread on unclean dogs? “Don’t call
What God has made unclean! Proclaim my truth to all!”
I never really knew him but I grew to love him.

Paul Damascus and Beyond, 35-37 AD

Damascus road became so bright I broke and fell —
Into his arms. His faithful friends there made me well.
Just how could I have been so blind? He had to hit
Me just enough to help me see the Scriptures fit.
His call: “It’s hard for you to kick against the goad”
Began my thinking finally down a worthwhile road.
With Barnabas as guide and apostolic friend,
Who introduced me to the group I’d hurt and feared,
In Antioch their prayers and charity endeared
Us to each other, letting us be called and sent
To spread his faith with miracles. Our lives were spent
In service to our Christ — unto the world’s end.
I never really knew him but I grew to love him.

Peter and Paul From Antioch to Rome, 40s to 60s

Back and forth across the Roman world, we spread
His sacred word and sacraments — that let men rise
Above their petty grasping squabbles, mortal dread,
And hedonistic lusts. His call to sacrifice
Enabled all to know that rising from the dead
Was their reward as well: the pearl of great price.
It cost us everything — and nothing — every day to follow him;
And over many years we finally grew to know him and to love him.

Patrick Dolan

Book Reviews

Fernando Cardenal, SJ
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2015
288 pp., $29.00

There is an iconic photo of Pope John Paul II on the tarmac of the airport in Managua, Nicaragua. It shows a man kneeling before the pope and John Paul shaking his finger at the priest, scolding him. That man was Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit whose passion for the suffering people of Nicaragua caused him to work for the overthrow of the Somoza regime, which had over many years relegated the majority of the people of the country to absolute poverty and ignorance.

Cardenal entered the Society of Jesus in 1952, at a time when most of the priests throughout Central and South America accepted the political and economic realities, in which ten percent of the people owned all the land and resources and the other ninety percent were literally their slaves. A great change in thinking took place after the Second Vatican Council, one which re-oriented the Church to greater solidarity with the poor. The Central American Bishops’ Conference in Medellin in 1968 and the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1965 made the promotion of justice integral to the service of faith. The orientation of many Jesuits throughout the world, but in particular in Central and South America, was immediate and profound.

For his tertianship experience, Cardenal was sent to live in a village in Medellin where he experienced the utter poverty of the people. As one of his responsibilities, he was to go into town to get the bread for the Jesuit community. The first time he did this, he gave all the bread away to hungry children on his way home. He told the community that they needed to send someone else to get the bread. No one did, and they learned to live without bread.

Living with the poor for nine months greatly impacted him. Before he left at the end of his tertianship, he made a promise to the people he had come to love. “Before God, I promise you that, wherever I am sent in the future, I am going to work for justice, for the building of a new society, for the liberation of the poor of Latin America, for all those marginalized and excluded of the continent. I will do this in any country where I am asked to live, in any task that my religious superiors ask of me.”

His first assignment was as the director of students at the University of Managua at the very moment when the campus erupted as middle-class students became radicalized against the repressive Somoza regime. They took over a number of university buildings in protest. Cardenal was able to negotiate a settlement and no property was damaged or people hurt. But that was just the beginning.

Shortly thereafter, he was with a group of students and other priests who occupied the cathedral. Arrests were made and some students were later killed. Protests against Somoza intensified and the opposition, called the Sandanistas, took up arms to protect themselves from the army. What followed was a long, bloody war during which Cardenal experienced the deaths of many of the young people he had come to know and love. After years of intense fighting, Somoza fled the country and the Sandanistas had won.

Very dear to Cardenal was literacy. He was assigned by Daniel Ortega, the Sandanista president, to lead the National Literacy Crusade. With virtually no resources, Cardenal was able to mobilize hundreds of young people who went through the country teaching people to read. The effort was highly successful. But the same could not be said for the socialist Sandanista government.

The Reagan administration did all it could to undermine what it saw as a dangerous communist country in the Western hemisphere. Pope John Paul II, who had suffered under communist repression in his native Poland, also looked on this socialist government, which had gained power through a bloody revolution, with concern. He wanted to enforce the canon law stipulation that prohibited priests from serving as government officials.

Jesuit authorities told Cardenal that the Vatican wanted him to resign and, after a number delaying tactics, Cardenal told his Jesuit superiors that he could not in conscience step down. His work with the poor was too important. Nor would he resign from the Society of Jesus. Finally, under renewed pressure from the Vatican, Cardenal was expelled, but his local Jesuit community invited him to continue to live with them.

Because the country was in such a mess economically, Ortega lost his reelection bid and after great soul-searching, Cardenal resigned his government post but continued his work in the education of his people. In 1990, he met with the Jesuit general, Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, and asked if there was any possibility of his returning to the Society. No Jesuit who had left the Society was ever allowed to return. Kolvenbach told Cardenal that he had studied his case and found that Cardenal had met a true conscientious objection and, given the testimony of his life, after some time and a second novitiate, he would be welcomed back into the Jesuits. On March 24, 2004, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Cardenal made his final vows in Managua.

The rest of his life was a continuous service of the poor to whom he had committed himself as a young priest. He never wavered from the promise he made and died in Managua in 2016. In many ways, Cardenal was the kind of priest that Pope Francis envisions. He had the heart of Jesus and certainly had the smell of the sheep engrained in his blood.

Patrick J. Riley, DMin
Book Review Editor


Clemens Sedmak
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2016
208 pp., $25.00

Sedmak uses the documents and addresses of Pope Francis to examine how the doctrinal tradition continues to develop and reclaim our relationship with the poor. He especially uses quotations from Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

Chapter 4 describes a Church of the poor for today: a call to conversion, poverty as a thorn in the flesh, a Church of the poor as risky and costly, and the Church of the poor and epistemic practices. In the last chapter, he expands on the growth and development of the tradition and the challenges called for in becoming what we had been originally as a Church of the poor. He describes “Orthodoxy in a New Key: Faith in Practice”: propositional orthodoxy, institutional orthodoxy, existential orthodoxy, and orthodoxy of pilgrims.

Sedmak emphasizes such quotes from Pope Francis as “Don’t forget the poor,” “God does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth, but rather in weakness and poverty,” and “The poor are at the center of the Gospel, at the heart of the Gospel. If we take away the poor from the Gospel, we cannot understand the message of the Gospel,” etc.

With his emphasis on “The Joy of the Gospel,” Sedmak presents ten characteristics of joy as described by Pope Francis, among them: the joy of the Gospel as an invitation, as a biblical motif, as a cooperative good, as a good people that wish to share, and as the social and political condition for joy (14-15).

I believe that Sedmak carries on a good dialogue between himself and Pope Francis. What is bothersome, though, is the use of obscurant vocabulary. To reclaim the early tradition of the Church of the poor, one has to recover the vocabulary — the vocabulary of Jesus, the vocabulary of the crowds that followed Jesus, the vocabulary of everyday life — not the vocabulary of the medieval disputes of the scholars of the university.

Pope Francis has led by personal example: having only three pair of shoes, living in Saint Martha’s with priests and visitors, taking in homeless men at the Jesuit residence, installing showers in the Vatican and having barbers give haircuts, welcoming a refugee family, and asking all religious groups to do the same.

To speak of “‘the orientation of epistemic resources,’ ‘the principle of the universal destination of goods,’ the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is intended to encourage (hence exhortation) the addressees to live in, summoning help, etc. . . . An exhortation is paraklesis, an act in encouraging, in admonishing, etc.” Often, he uses words that he then explains. Ideas are lost in the esoteric language.

Instead of listing and explaining all of the different types of orthodoxy, why not just use Matthew 25, which is clear, concise, and practical? Theology is more action than language.

I found the book very much a book for a theological library, not grounded in everyday action and practice or in a real call to relate to the poor. It doesn’t have the language of “the shepherd and the sheep” or a radical, everyday call to action of Matthew: 25.

Marie Vianney Bilgrien, SSND
El Paso, Texas


About Various Authors