The HBO miniseries The Young Pope premiered in Italy last October of 2016 to generally favorable reviews and, as you might expect for an atheist-directed show about the papacy, not inconsiderable consternation from Catholic blogs and news sites. To do it justice, the production looks great: beautiful settings, St. Peter’s Square packed full of people, and Jude Law absolutely resplendent in papal garb. Director Paolo Sorrentino delivers the quality viewers pay to see from HBO.
But like Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII, underneath the surface something feels off: clunky dialogue, bad theology, and the almost complete lack of humor turns at times the plot from the surreal to the unbelievable. The petulant, borderline sociopathic behavior of Pius XIII takes willing suspension of disbelief to its limits, and some unfortunately written lines given to Diane Keaton almost hurt to listen to. These and other minor details may detract from a viewing experience of the The Young Pope: “Episode 1.” But these are small concerns. The star-studded cast manages to shine in spite of the stubbornly superficial characters and heavy-handed exposition. Best of all, the series prompts young Catholics to ask interesting questions about their faith, some trivial, some less so. With that said, here are 13 thoughts a young Catholic had watching The Young Pope:
1. What is the age of the youngest pope actually?
The record, held by Benedict IX in 1032 A.D., is 11 years, 36 years younger than Jude Law’s Pius XIII. At least three other popes also beat out Pius XIII for youth: Johns XI and XII and Gregory V. All became pope within almost a century of one another, and not for good reasons.
2. How is the pope chosen today?
Popes today are chosen by papal conclave, an electoral process requiring a two-thirds majority vote of cardinals in favor of a willing candidate. This practice developed over time in the Church, largely in response to the election of so many popes by secular rulers, a process that lead to problems of its own.
3. Could someone like Lenny Belardo (Pius XIII) ever become pope?
See the above two answers. The saeculum obscurum, or dark age, refers to a period in Church history when powerful Italian families greatly influenced papal elections, resulting in a crisis with rival claims to the papacy. 13th century reforms insulated papal elections from influence by secular rulers to prevent further controversy. So to answer the question, yes . . . but no.
4. Is this how people imagine having an American pope would be?
First off, the current pope is not from America. He’s Argentine. Second, yes, probably. Mr. Sorrentino claims to have come up with the character while Obama was in office, but one can’t help but feel he had another president in mind when creating him. It doesn’t hurt that Pius XIII hails from New York and his actor happens to be wearing a wig.
5.Were those nuns just waiting outside Fr. Spencer’s bathroom for him to try to kill himself?
In a shocking scene, Pius XIII’s mentor tries to commit suicide in despair because his pupil became pope instead of him. Fortunately for him, a couple of passing nuns stop him before he can slit his wrists. Why they were outside his bathroom to begin with is never adequately explained. It’s one of those minor details that keeps The Young Pope from ever truly being great.
6. Am I allowed to be on my cellphone in the confessional?
If you wanted to write things down so you know what to say to the priest, that’s perfectly fine. If you’re the kind of person who finds it difficult to resist the urge to Snapchat everything you’re doing, you might reconsider it.
7. So the pope can order confessors to tell him people’s sins if it concerns the security of the Church?
Absolutely not. Under no circumstances can a priest break the seal of confession. Canon law lists the penalty for such an act as latae sententiae, excommunication. This sounds cool, but it’s just the Latin way of saying you are automatically booted out of the Catholic Church, which, for a committed priest, is the worst possible punishment. No one, priest, bishop, or pope, can ask a confessor to reveal someone’s sins that have been revealed in the sacrament of penance.
8. Jude Law does a great American accent.
This is not related to Catholicism nor is it a question. Yes, yes, he does.
9. Is there really a papal tiara in D.C.?
Yes, and Pope Paul VI really did donate it in 1963 and give the proceeds to the poor. He did so as a symbol of renouncing the worldly power commonly associated with the tiara, something his fictional successor comments on as a mistake. This remark is one of many that reveal Pius XIII is perhaps less pious than he lets on.
10. Do people really make life or death decisions based on what the pope says?
In a disturbing opening scene, Pius XIII declares in his inaugural homily that Catholics everywhere should embrace a multitude of practices that would go against their conscience and Church doctrine. Mr. Sorrentino clearly intends this scene to force introspection in people who heed so fervently the words of the Holy Father. Of course, the pope is not the Church, and should anyone ever advise someone to act in any way contrary to their conscience, that person’s words should in no way be heeded.
11. Pius XIII isn’t that funny.
No, not very often. The worst is when he lies and covers himself with, “I was only joking.” It’s a trait that shows both his Machiavellian, dishonest streak and his stark lack of any joy or humor.
12. Does God live in the Big Dipper in a half duplex with a private swimming pool?
No. See above.
13. Are they making another one of these?
Just this month, Mr. Sorrentino announced a sequel series, titled The New Pope. I only hope the new series and the new pontiff learn from their predecessor’s mistakes.