I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy The Young Pope. The show centers around the newly elected Pope Pius XIII, played distantly and ghostly by Jude Law. Many themes run through its 10 episode premiere season: faith/doubt, tradition/modernism, youth/age, trust/suspicion, abandonment/acceptance, etc.
But the relationships of the pope caught my eye, particularly, are his relationships with women: the trickiest relationships in a priest’s life. It became clear to me that a priest who really knows ministry well was either ghost-writing for the show, or consulting in a close manner because of how accurate, although dramatized for effect, these relationships are.
I’ve chosen three of these female characters to review as a means to explain a bit of how a good priest relates to the women the Lord brings into his life.
Sister Mary, the older woman.
Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton, is the adoptive mother of the pope. The woman who raised him since he was abandoned by his biological mother and father as a boy. She is the woman who comforted his childhood pain, guided his adolescents, and ensured he would have a strong father figure when leaving for university studies. She is brought to the Vatican under his directives and arrives the day after his election to the Chair of Peter. The first time we witness Pius XIII show any vulnerability it is with her as he references the parents who have abandoned him. Sr. Mary immediately talks to him in that oh so familiar tone only a Catholic mom could. Sternly getting through to him that his troubled youth is no longer what must drive him, but the responsibility of shepherding the entire Catholic Church. She addresses him by his given name, Lenny, multiple times, but to get to the point that he is no longer that orphan boy, but the pope, Pius XIII. She’s the adult int he room. She’s the mother.
Later the pope comes a point where he must insist on being called “Your Holiness” by Sr. Mary. He is asserting his autonomy, and his independence. Does he do it in the most charitable manner? I think no. I think he fails morally, in fact. Nevertheless, it is a point in the lives of most men who have good mothers reach: informing them that the boy is now a man, and the man demands to be treated like a man, even from his own mother. As visibly hurt as Sr. Mary is by Lenny’s tone, she obeys Pius XIII. He is the hierarchic superior in the room.
In the season finale, the two clearly are reconciled of any rift the new ecclesial dynamic brought them. The pope, curiously dressed in simple black clerics, and Sr. Mary talk about her future, and her past as only a mother and son would. She asks if she can call him “Lenny” again, and he responds “only if I can call you ‘Ma.’” (“‘Ma” being a name he was not allowed to call her at the orphanage.) She smiles and says yes. Mom and son; pope and nun are dropped for the moment. It is now two adults of the Church enjoying a solid relationship rooted in their imperfect faith in Christ and his Church.
Sofia, the woman his age.
Sofia is probably the character most like the young pope himself. Played by Cécile De France, Sofia is the marketing director for the fictionalized Holy See. She’s smart, cunning, and confident. She’s attractive; she knows it, and she uses it to her advantage. She’s a pro, no doubts whatsoever. This may sound as if she’s diabolical, but like the young pope, she’s motivated by love of the Church. “Be as shrewd as serpents, and simple as doves.” (Matt 10:16) She and the pope live by this, but she’s a course correction to his favor of shrewdness. We see a relationship of professional peers emerge (No, not as hierarchic peers). This is most evident in three separate scenes.
Scene 1: The pope stands at a commanding distance, while Sofia sits.
She meets with Pius XIII for the first time to get his approval for papal merchandise. She goes over the designs, the costs, and the expected monetary yields. The pontiff leaves the room, and comes back with a blank plate and in pointedly explains his radically different approach to marketing the image of the papacy while dressing down Sofia’s alma mater, Harvard. It’s clear the pope is asserting that he is the boss, and she is not.
Sofia is surprised, but takes the diatribe like a professional, with an open mind, and even comes to like the new strategy. She agrees to be a soldier in the revolution of Pius XIII, with the pope as her commanding officer.
Scene 2: Sofia and the pope sit in equal chairs at the head of a room a the pope’s wanting.
Sofia visits the pope while he is on vacation at Castel Gandolfo. Pius XIII (who has recently suffered tremendous personal pain) is realizing that his plan of unavailability is not working. Sofia knows why and shares her wisdom (a bit on the nose, eh?) with the pope. The solution involves a papal trip to Africa, and Pius XIII does not want to travel at all. Her professional expertise is now challenging the young pope to break past his comfort zone for the good of the Church. It’s also quite clear she has a full plan for the trip to make it as accommodating to the young pope’s tastes as possible. She has become the trusted advisor and professional confidant of her commanding officer.
Scene 3: Sofia sits in the pope’s receiving room chair at his informal request, while he sits in a smaller chair.
The trip to Africa was a success on several unexpected levels. The pope has become a worldwide leader. While he is still the pope, and while he still remains her commanding officer, he has come to learn that Sofia must be part of his inner circle. While he concocted his media strategy, she knows the best ways to keep it running. As stated above, she’s the course correction of his favor of shrewdness towards innocence. The two chit chat in a friendly, and professional manner for a bit, and then she reminds him of how he promised to be a tour guide for school children at the Vatican museum to his annoyance. He wants out of it, but she “tells” him that he can’t. Of course, the pope can cancel. Of course he is not being ordered by her to do it, but he knows she’s right, and he gives the tour… poorly, and Sofia takes over because he knows that’s the right thing to do.
The two work closely. They WORK closely. Their relationship is professionally intimate, and that’s all it is, and that’s all it should be. Close professional relationships with clear boundaries are of inestimable worth in the ministry of the priest. We got to school for a long time, but we don’t learn it all. The humility to recognize when another is more expert than oneself saves a great deal of grief and time. As authoritative as the young pope makes himself out to be, he shows with Sofia the humility necessary for effective leadership in the service of souls.
Sofia is his peer in age, and his peer in professionalism (and no, not hierarchically).
Esther, the younger woman.
Esther, played Ludivine Sagnier, is a vulnerable, young woman who meets the young pope early in the series. Her marriage (to a Swiss guard) has become stale. She has gravely sinned in her recent past. She and her husband are sterile. All she has is God, but she is lost when it comes to finding him. At a distant the isolated young priest notices her faith shine in the darkness, and he wishes to reach out to her, and to help her.
The next steps in this story could have been brutal. After all, the pope is an orphan. He feels alone, and abandoned. In Esther he could find one in whom he can confide his pain as an equal, as a soulmate, and as a lover. A real void could be filled falsely through a most illicit manner. It is there for his taking, under two very different sets of circumstances. In both cases, he directs the affection and desperation of the young lady away from him and towards Our Lord and Our Lady. He does confide a bit in her, but in a more general way. Perhaps this was a bad move in that he lowered his guard around her. Perhaps it was a good move in that she needed to feel some form of personal connection to him to abandon any attempts at seduction. It’s a tough judgement call, and one that usually must be made in the moment it arises. The pope, however, was praying before this conversation occurred.
Esther does not become a romantic relationship, but she does not quite become a sister either.
In what appears to be a miracle through the prayers of the young pope (with on the nose symbolism), she becomes pregnant. The child is named Pius, and the pope seems to become somewhat of an uncle to the the infant.
The young pope finds himself now drawn to a family that experienced healing he helped provide. He likes to accompany them as they walk the infant around the Vatican gardens, and will even change little Pius’s diaper when he visits their modest home in the evening. It is almost as if this family is becoming the family he never had. Then he goes on vacation, and they leave the Vatican quickly, and without a word of warning in his absence to his disappointment.
Working with the young means becoming a part of their lives quite quickly, helping them grow in holiness rather quickly, and then watching the leave for the next stage of their lives most quickly. Quite often a young woman will enter the ministerial life of a priest and divulge the darkest parts of her life in hope that she will find greater joy. By the grace of God the priest will often help her find that joy which will help her move to the next stage of her life. It is quite a joy to witness this joy unfold, and their is a want to see it unfold in the years to come, but much more often than not, it is not a for us to witness. The young woman moves onto the next stage. That priest has served his purpose in her life, and if he did so well, she will move on without him. When that happens, it can surprise the priest, and it can hurt too. We see Pius XIII come to realize this hurt, and come to let it go in love.
While the other women become somewhat of an equal to the pope, (please folks, I don’t mean it in the sense of ecclesiastical authority) Esther does not. In fact, Esther is the woman the pope probably with whom the pope wants to become an equal. He’d like to be a close friend to her, but he can’t be. She’s married, and she has a child. The friendship is limited, and the marriage relationship is more important than even a relationship with the pope.
Many are interpreting Pius XIII as a villain, but I don’t see that at all. He’s younger than the Baby Boomers, and grew up in a Boomer run Church. He’s seen the pitfalls of attempted modernization: faithlessness among most his age and younger. He’s also an orphan and sees how Mother Church has left many of her children without faith, as his mother left him without a family. He reaches back to time-tested tradition as a cure. This may lead many to believe he will hate women, and indeed there are parts of the show where he is clearly looking to harm his own mother through others, but in the end he is kind-hearted. In the end, he truly cares about the people of God, including, and even especially the women God places in his life. He’s a demonstration of how the younger, more traditional priests of the Church are not the boogey-men older generations make them out to be. In fact, I’d bet if you polled the women to whom we actually minister, you’d find that nearly none of them would call us misogynistic, and nearly all would describe us as kind.
I found the show remarkable in how it directs real world biases that real world people possess of young, traditional priests to a fictional universe. In that fictional universe, the show reveals that those biases are often unfounded, and wrapped up in externals like regal vestments, or Ad Orientem Mass. The show demonstrates that traditionalism and formal boundaries are not the enemies of kindness and compassion. It does so best in how Pius XIII loves these three women.
I give this aspect of the show 9.5/10 with a half-point deduction for over-the-top, and on the nose symbolism.
Overall I give the show 8.5/10 with the same half-point deduction as above, and a full point for an unnecessary soft-core pornography scene in the middle of the season. I don’t mind you have characters engaged in such a sin, but you can tell me they are without showing me the sin.