A Pope for all Seasons

Historically the word “pope” has been mired in controversy. Many have pointed to the shadows of those who have ruled the Vatican–strong shadows such as the Inquisition, Nazi collaboration, concealment of pedophilia, corruption, micromanaging the minds and lives of their congregations, and the persistent acquisition of immense wealth. And yet others have seen the pope as the ultimate saint, Jesus’s greatest voice on earth, the final arbiter of morality, a counter-balance to secular authority, and a surrogate “Father” to mankind.

Visual media have also been filled with papal stereotypes such as in the Dan Brown films The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and in the biopics of history about St. Francis, Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Mother Theresa, and others who appealed to or were excommunicated by the pope.

Often through the media lens the pope has been seen as an icon emerging from a distant balcony to bless a crowd or presiding in closed quarters over a throng of elderly cardinals. In many of the top comedies he has also been used as a sight gag or anachronism.

At last a feature length documentary film has emerged which gives an in-depth insider view of an actual human being. Pope Francis: Man of His Word (2018), directed by the renowned German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, is perhaps the most intimate commentary about any major spiritual leader which is internationally publicized.

Because it is shown from both the pope’s and the film-maker’s perspective, there are visual close-ups of Pope Francis set up so that he is talking directly to the camera as if he is across the lunch table from you just three feet away. This intimate one-on-one style recurs again and again throughout the film such that Pope Francis has become your own personal conversation partner by the film’s end. You feel like he has been looking you right in the eye periodically for ninety-six minutes.

When he is not being interviewed, we see the pope travelling worldwide and laying his hands upon the diseased, orphaned, and impoverished as if each is a friend. It is as if there is a powerful attunement current conveyed by his presence and yet he remains humble, open, and genuine. He seeks to answer each question honestly in a simple, unscripted way which touches the audience.

Throughout the film we discover all the ways that Pope Francis remains modest by eating ordinary food, driving an eco-friendly smaller car, wearing modest clothing, and spending much of his time with marginalized and desperate people who look to him for guidance and love. We also see Pope Francis addressing the issues of

the church and of the day–one by one–first poverty, then the environment, then gay identity as a Christian, next pedophilia in the Church, then violence, and other issues such that by the completion of the screening we have a strong sense of his overall vision, positions, and character.

One senses in various parts of the film–especially during the extensive interview (which is actually an inner view) that we are sharing our primal spirituality with another angel on the planet. We can peer into the bright rays of his eyes into a heart of gold. This melting process allows for a greater sensing of one’s own Divinity. Although the film seems to be about Pope Francis, by the end it is ultimately about one’s self.

Indeed when I saw the film, at the conclusion several audience members rose to give a standing ovation while others sat crying, spellbound, or in a state of deep reflection. Although one might not agree with each aspect of Francis’s theology, by the film’s end all of that seems secondary to who he is underneath his catechism, policies, and beliefs.

Pope Francis is a film for all audiences. One sees him worshipping with people of many primary faiths and non-judgmental of those who seem to be non-believers. It has been some time since I have seen a film which I can recommend to entire families to view together and later discuss over a meal.

One senses that Pope Francis is ultimately a pope for all seasons. He is shown visiting all continents, conversing with religious leaders of all faiths, and befriending those of all classes with multiple perspectives. Reform seems to be his middle name, and yet not the type of reform which alienates the traditionalists nor divides his church into two camps.

Francis is clearly trying to put the “Christ” back into Christianity, and that seems appealing to all who know that “man looketh upon the outside, but God looketh upon the heart…” no matter how liberal or conservative their theology. Because he seems so easy to relate to as a person, one senses he could be a next door neighbor or best friend rather than an aloof pontiff. Wenders and Francis even end the film with some humor, a twist which seems out of character with the serious image of the pope to which the Vatican has long aspired.

We are each mini-critics of the media we consume so you may find small problems with the film that I have not. Perhaps for you the film is too long, or too rose-colored since it all but paints a halo on its central character. Moreover, like most people, I too could be critical of the film since I have long doubted the “infallibility” of the pope. Yet, in all honesty, I could find no evidence that either this film, or its central character, are fallible in any way.

By all accounts Pope Francis is a man who walks the talk and inspires others to do likewise. Hence, Wender’s documentary is accurately subtitled A Man of His Word. In an age when the character of world leaders is greatly criticized, it is wonderful to discover a film’s central character who epitomizes trustworthiness and who inspires others to rise, lead, forgive, heal, and especially to love.

Media for Children of all Ages: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

To my view, it has always been as hard to make substantial media programs for children as it has been to make successful programs about children’s media. Morgan Neville’s beloved documentary about the TV program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” manages to do both and more. The 94-minute feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, not only takes us behind the scenes in Fred Rogers TV set and life, but it also shares potent insights about children, their relationships with adults, and our primal spirit.

Not many people knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who left seminary to develop a unique form of ministry just as the new-fangled technology called “television” was appearing in affluent Western countries. Few of us also realize that it may well have been Fred Rogers who saved public television in the United States and who studied child development as part of the team which included Eric Ericson and other academic thought leaders.

The film introduces us to all these little known “backstories” surrounding Fred Rogers, as told through archival footage, as well as interviews with co-workers, family, children’s TV experts, and friends. And the film is not afraid to also venture into more controversial areas such as Rogers’ attitudes toward and relationships with what we now call LGBTQ issues and the protesters who hated Rogers for creating a “generation of entitlement.”

However, I felt this film was about much more than this and the full spectrum of other engaging topics it covered such as race, 9/11, music, children’s TV, and Fred Roger’s hidden traits and trajectory. At the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart–and the heart of this film is about how Rogers opened the hearts of virtually every child and adult he met. In the process of our own hearts are opened and what seems to be a documentary screening experience is transformed into worshipping within a temple.

Toward that end, I felt that the total strangers that I was watching the film with became solidified as if family. We all applauded at the end and many sat in silence. My wife and I could not restrain tears more than once and these were not due to the tear-jerking antics of maudlin and manipulative Hollywood melodramas. These tears were induced by the sustained moments of penetrating truth and profound genuineness whether spoken by children or adults.

Fred Rogers found a way to drop the mask and be an authentic expression of Divine spirit which drew forth the best from all those he interviewed. He loved silence and thus created space for others to come forth rather than jamming their wavelength with verbosity and pomposity. He seemed genuinely interested in each person with whom he spoke and he could maintain such interest long past the breaking point for most of us.

Indeed he made every child (and person) feel special. His stage manager reveals how it would be natural for most media professionals to want to have some of the children who were trouble-makers, especially the “spoiled brats”, to leave the studio. But Fred Rogers included everyone and made even the most difficult children feel special and loved. He not only reached them but he inspired civil behavior and he motivated positive change. Literally, thousands of children thanked him for his inspiration years later when they were teens and adults.

Although I am not into hero worship, I could not help but feel I was watching something like a second-coming of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu or another spiritual leader disguised as an ordinary children’s storyteller–a sheep in worker bee’s clothing. Bible verses such as “suffer the little children to come unto me” and “blessed are the peacemakers” entered my head as I watched the film. I also thought of the Tao’s simple harmony with the flow of life as I watched Rogers exemplify tranquility, non-resistance, fluidity, and humility.

Because he was so gentle and fey, if not fay, Mr. Rogers was sometimes written off as a flake or a fake since no one could possibly be that saintly. And yet, despite his humanness, the off-camera Rogers is revealed to be much the same as his TV image–inclusive, non-judgmental, generous, and above all loving.

Indeed the film is a love letter to children of all ages and an expansion of the spiritual command to “love your neighbor” and in this case, your neighborhood. It is filmed for folk of all ages and stages and far more than a tribute or biopic. Like the other great spiritual classics, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not just a celebration of one life, but the expression of the One Life that we all share–and an invitation to share it deeply with others.

You are the Medium That Matters

Throughout the two dozen “Media That Matter” blogs that have been published over the past two years, I have written about the media that we consume. But what about the media that we create? Although I have sought to point toward literally dozens of examples of elevating media in most formats, these are all films, songs, photos, programs, websites, etc., made by other people. What if we switch our mode of action from the consumer to the creator?

 

Perhaps as a child or later in life you wished to be an actor, singer, film-maker, dancer, photographer, poet, sculptor, painter, or song-writer? What’s stopping you? What’s stopping me? A friend of mine used to say “don’t die with your music still in you” and I know she is right. What’s keeping us from creating media that matter?

 

People used to complain that it was too expensive to become a film-maker. But today you can create films on your cell phone or on inexpensive cameras. Now there are technologies by which you can shoot and reshoot without wasting “film” and time on lab costs and delays.

 

Another excuse that is often given is, “I’m too old–you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But George Bernard Shaw said he wrote his best plays after he turned seventy. Both classical cellist Pablo Casals and blues guitarist B.B. King were transformed into much younger men when they performed in their eighties. Conversely, one might claim that he is too young to make anything significant. But that never stopped the teen-agers Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, nor the five year old touring prodigy named Mozart.

 

In short, you and I can create inspirational, consciousness-raising and educational media at any age if we are passionate about doing so. And there is something very healthy, indeed nourishing, about letting our voices be heard in new and creative ways.

 

What would you like written on your tombstone: “Screened Friday the 13th parts 1-28, fifty times” or, “saved lives” or, “was a caring parent” or, “created works of inspiration?” For most of us the choice is clear cut–and yet that does not prevent us from becoming addicted to over nine hours of media consumption per day per person in the United States alone. It becomes impossible to hear myself think if my head is swimming with electronic programming created by others. Who am I beneath that programming?

 

When I discover who I am, I too have stories to tell, and not the same old narratives told in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue. Indeed, I am a medium of light. I need to be careful with how I use the word “medium” in a blog about spirituality because many think of mediums as people who channel the dead. But what about those who channel the living? What about those who channel themselves?

We can transmit ourselves by virtue of the fields of radiance which surround, yet also include us. We can be emissions of divine light.

 

That is the true calling in media, to be a medium of light who broadcasts creativity, divine uplift, and motivates people to believe in themselves. In that sense, we are the true media. We are born to be creators and not just consumers, the real, the new, and the true media.

 


DR. TOM COOPER is currently guest scholar at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii, Stanford and Berkeley and professor at Emerson College (Boston).  Musician, black belt, and playwright, he has written eight books and two hundred published articles, been advisor to the Elders Project (with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others),  co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is co-publisher of MEDIA ETHICS magazine.

 

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