Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.

Two Popes, too many?

01-26-2020Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

First there was the two Popes and then there was the movie version of the Two Popes and then a book pitting the Two Popes against each other. It’s enough to give you Two Popes, too many fatigue. The latest intrigue from our being present at this unique historical moment of having a Pope and a Pope emeritus is a film and a book.

The film, The Two Popes has been playing on Netflix as of late. What you need to know about the film is that it is FICTION. It never happened except in a writer’s creative mind. Nor is it based on pieces of actual evidence or what probably could have occurred. Just a yarn made from whole cloth. What’s good about the film is the acting. Both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce give excellent performances and do not disappoint. What’s bad, is that it is stereotypic on many levels. The film uses a stereotypical Hollywood world view in which everything is divided into right-left, liberal-conservative categories. So, Pope emeritus Benedict is the rigid, rightwing villain and Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) is the oozing-compassion progressive. Then in stereotypical Hollywood characterization, a German personality by definition is hard, cold and unfeeling whereas the South American personality is infused with Tango tapping joy and joie de vivre.

While the book usually comes first, in this case it came later. Specifically, the book by Cardinal Sarah, who is the head of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. The subject matter of the book is Priestly Celibacy and why the Church needs it. Originally the book was to be published as being co-authored by Sarah and Pope emeritus Benedict. Apparently, the Pope emeritus gave permission for one Chapter of the Book to use his reflection on priestly celibacy but never signed on as co-author. As these things go, apparently there was confusion on the part of everybody. Cardinal Sarah thought Benedict said Ok and Benedict didn't realize (or his Secretary) didn't realize what Sarah was asking. Long story short, the name of Pope emeritus Benedict was removed as co-author and just one Chapter of the book is ascribed to his authorship. And again, in stereotypical fashion, Cardinal Sarah is being portrayed as the traditionalist African who is the archnemesis of the gentle understanding Pope Francis and who is trying to thwart the progressivism of Francis and positioning himself to be next in line for the Papacy. It’s all so predictable but the reality is probably very different.

When the book was originally slated to be published under both names, it looked to some as a counter move by the Pope emeritus to Pope Francis’s possible permitting married clergy in the Amazon region (which had been brought up in the recent Synod). Pope Benedict obviously did not want to send that message, though maybe Sarah did, so he had his name removed as co-author. The book has not yet been published in English, but what is interesting from the pieces I have read on-line is that Cardinal Sarah tries to make the case that priesthood and matrimony are incompatible while the Pope emeritus does not go that far. The Pope emeritus leans more towards St. Paul’s teaching that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is preferable for service but not absolute. To me the Pope emeritus has a better grasp of the history of the discipline of priestly celibacy than does the Cardinal. But both are great writers and provide beautiful and thought inspiring reflections on the priesthood and the value of a celibate priesthood. And like other books that Cardinal Sarah has written I am sure this one will be worth your time.

Someone asked me, “If the Pope allows priests to marry, would you?” My answer is no because too many women would throw themselves at me and it would be too difficult to choose. Just kidding. If you had asked me that question when I was in my thirties, the answer may have been different. But at this point in life, I am very content and see the wisdom of St. Paul who wrote to the Corinthians:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. . . . So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better (1 Cor. 7:32-35, 38).

One thing St. Paul reminds us, is that we are all to be holy in body and spirit regardless of our state in life. And whatever state we find ourselves in, single, married or celibate we have to support one another and encourage one another to be always faithful. And this is the truth that the two Popes are trying to teach us.


Fr. John B.