The recently released Netflix film The Two Popes presents Francis and Benedict XVI within a progressive-conservative frame by recreating their relationship before the election of Francis.

However, what the two popes have actually said about each other does not fit that frame very well.

Directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), the film features two well-known actors: Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs etc etc etc), as Benedict XVI, and Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones), as Francis.

Scriptwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody) is also the author of the book, The Pope: Francis, Benedict and the Decision That Shook the World, and his play, “The Two Popes”, opened in London this year. He imagines what the coexistence of two pontiffs must be like, and the film recreates the relationship between the two before Bergoglio was elected.

Although both popes are treated with sympathy, the film reduces their relationship to a debate between a conservative and a progressive — to a power struggle. It is not a very novel approach.

In the movie, Benedict tells Bergoglio: “You have been one of my toughest critics.” It is “inspired by real events”, but, as Christopher Altieri, of the Catholic Herald (UK), comments, “The impression one garners is of a story inspired by headlines and mainstream narrative.” McCarten’s book, for example, is advertised on Amazon thus: “If, as the Church teaches, the pope is infallible, how can two living popes who disagree on almost everything both be right?”

Media interest in the relationship between the two popes is undeniable and, until now, the theme of ideological tension has been dominant. But is it really like that? Why not listen to what they, or the people closest to them, say? During the six years of Francis’s pontificate, there have been plenty of occasions on which one has spoken of the other, even if the media ignored them when they undermined the official narrative.

The first days

On February 28, 2013, a few days before the election of Francis, Benedict XVI told the cardinals in Rome: “Among you, among the College of Cardinals, sits the future Pope, and I already promise him my unconditional reverence and obedience.” A few years later, Francis recalled that moment in a press conference, saying Benedict promised to obey, and he did: “He is a man of his word, an upright, a completely upright man!” 

With the election of Francis on March 13, 2013, an unprecedented relationship began in the Catholic Church: a Pope and an emeritus Pope who live only a few yards away from each other, a situation that Catholics and the entire world viewed with great interest.

We know from first-hand testimonials how that intimate relationship unfolded, from the moment of Francis’s election.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, secretary of Benedict XVI and prefect of the Papal Household, remembers it like this:

“As soon as he was elected Pope, Bergoglio asked me if I would ring Benedict. In Castel Gandolfo that call was not expected, to the point that no one answered the phone. They were all in the living room in front of the TV waiting to see who looked out from the balcony. Later we managed to contact him, and the two were able to speak to each other. The next day I asked him about the new Pope’s call and he said only: ‘It was very beautiful. I congratulated him and promised to pray for him.’” (Interview with Paolo Rodari, La Repubblica, April 16, 2015).

We also know what happened on the other side of the phone, thanks to the testimony of Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, another secretary of Benedict, who was with him when he took the call: “He was anxious to know who would be his successor. The telephone call that the new Pontiff made immediately to Pope Benedict was very moving. I was at his side and I handed him the phone. How touching it was to hear Benedict say, ‘I thank you, Holy Father, because you thought of me. I promise you right away my obedience; I promise you my prayers for you!'”

In 2014, Benedict said he felt “grateful to be united by a great identity of views and a heartfelt friendship with Pope Francis.” Indeed, ten days after his election, Francis had visited Benedict at Castel Gandolfo. The photos of the embrace and the moment of prayer in common went around the world. One particular photo sparked media interest — the two were seen chatting with a white box on the table. What was in the box? The Pope himself told an Argentine journalist a few months later in the airborne press conference after World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013:

“I’m going to tell you an anecdote about the ‘Vatileaks’ report. When I went to see Pope Benedict, after praying in the chapel we went to his study and I saw a big box and a thick envelope …

“Benedict told me, he said to me, ‘In this big box are all of the declarations, the things the witnesses said. It’s all there. But the summary and the final judgment are in this envelope. And here it says this and this and this…’ He had it all in his head! But what intelligence! Everything memorized, everything! But no, I wasn’t scared, no. No, no. But it is a big problem, eh? But I wasn’t afraid.”

Many meetings

From then on an intimate and close relationship developed, full of meetings, meaningful words and harmony. On the same flight back from Rio de Janeiro, Francis recalled:

“I believe that the last time there were two popes, or three popes, they didn’t speak to each other. They were fighting to see who the real one was. There were up to three during the Schism of the West.

“There is a special quality about my relationship with Benedict. I really love him. I have always loved him. For me, he is a man of God, a humble man, a man who prays. I was so happy when he was elected Pope. Also, when he announced his resignation it was an example of greatness for me. A great [man]. Only a great [man] can do this! A man of God and a man of prayer. He himself lives in the Vatican, and some say to me, ‘but how can this be? Two Popes in the Vatican! But doesn’t he weigh you down? But doesn’t he make a revolution against you?’ All of these things are said, right?

“I found a phrase to explain this, ‘It’s like having a grandfather at home,’ but a wise grandfather. When the grandfather is at home in a family, he is venerated, he is loved, he is listened to. He is a man of a prudence! He isn’t muscling in.”

In August 2013 Francis had an important interview with La Civiltà Cattolica. Months later, Gänswein said that Francis gave him a copy to be taken immediately to Benedict:

“Three days later, Pope Benedict told me that he had written four pages. Not by hand, of course, but by dictating them to Sister Birgit Wansing, and not in the magazine but in a letter, and he asked me to take it to Pope Francis. That is, he did his homework!” (Interview with the German television network ZDF, aired on 03-14-2014).

Since then Pope Francis has sought out Benedict numerous times. In the early years, while his health permitted, Benedict continued to attend important celebrations: the appointment of new cardinals, the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII, the beatification of Paul VI, the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy, etc. It was moving to see that when Francis approached to greet him, Benedict took off his skullcap in respect.

Congratulations from Francis at Easter and Christmas have also been constants and photographs of those meetings have gone viral. In the summer of 2015, for example, Francis went to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, where Benedict was staying, and they had a long meeting before Benedict went to rest at Castel Gandolfo. On the eve of the canonizations of Paul VI and Archbishop Óscar Romero, Francis also went to be with him. After the 2019 Consistory in which Francis created new cardinals, everyone went to Benedict. The Pope emeritus spoke of fidelity to the Pope. And this happened many other times.

Differences and continuity

On the topic of their coexistence, Gänswein highlights, in an interview published in his 2018 book The Other Francis, the Pope’s naturalness. The secret, he says, is in “the esteem, appreciation and respect that they feel for each other… It is not fictitious, a façade, but true, lived, something I witness daily,” he says. “I am continually touched by the kindness that Pope Francis shows to Benedict.”

Pages and pages have been written about the differences between the two, commentary which often confuses style with content. When asked about the most obvious difference, Gänswein replies: “Pope Francis establishes a direct relationship with people. Benedict is a person who approaches others with reserve. The different approaches are not the result of deliberation, but are part of the personalities of both Popes.”

In the same interview, the journalist points out to Gänswein that there is another obvious difference: how the media treats them. Gänswein’s response is realistic:

“The media is not a metric for evaluating the work of Peter’s successor. I think this phenomenon is the result, also, of the way that each of them communicates. Pope Francis is a media man, who knows how to communicate by making unexpected and surprising gestures that capture the attention of the media; Benedict does not have this quality; his gift is to explain things clearly.”

But beyond the obvious differences, he defends the notion that “there is a persistent and essential continuity between the teaching of Benedict XVI and that of Francis … I do not see differences, I see only aspects that are more enhanced and a different style, but the substance has not changed.”

Does Benedict comment on episodes or gestures of the pontificate of Francis? “I often relate at home how the private audiences, the general audiences and the meetings of the day have gone. Pope Benedict listens without commenting, interested in the different anecdotes. It’s not his style to comment. ”

Eloquent words

During these years both popes have been able to express in public their mutual affection and closeness. For example, Francis has participated every year in the Ratzinger Prize, awarded annually by The Ratzinger Foundation for outstanding contributions to the dialogue between faith and reason, and has given an address. In 2018 he said of Benedict:

“With his spirit, he faces the problems of our time with awareness and courage, and knows how to draw – from the attention to the Scriptures in the living tradition of the Church – the wisdom that is necessary for a constructive dialogue with today’s culture. In this way, I encourage you to continue studying his writings.” In 2019 he said that he was grateful for the “opportunity to express once again my esteem and affection for my predecessor, the beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.”

In another speech, this time to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, after unveiling a bust in honour of Benedict, Francis pointed out: “This spirit, far from crumbling with the passage of time, will appear from generation to generation, always greater and more powerful. Benedict XVI: a great Pope. Great for the strength and penetration of his intelligence, great for his important contribution to theology, great for his love in addressing the Church and human beings, great for his virtue and his religiosity.”

‘His goodness is the place where I live’

On the return flight from Armenia in June 2016, Francis commented to journalists on rumours about the two popes and said: “He is the man that protects my shoulders and back with his prayer.” And he referred to him as a “this great man of prayer, of courage, that is the Pope Emeritus, not a second Pope, a man who is faithful to his word and a great man of God, very intelligent — and for me he is the wise grandfather at home.”

Also on that occasion he said that “some have gone there (to him) to complain because of this new Pope… and he chased them away, eh, with the best Bavarian style, educated, but he chased them away.” 

Upon getting off the plane, Pope Francis told Gänswein: “Today I said something a little strong. I have spoken of Pope Benedict as of a wise grandfather at home. I hope you don’t get offended.” Gänswein commented: “It is a beautiful image, although it may be a surprising phrase from a Pope, but it is evident that it is sincere and heartfelt, said with great sympathy and affection. It is a strong, immediate, sincere and beautiful image, consistent with the style of Pope Francis.”

Benedict himself had also referred to that “protection with prayer” two years earlier, in a letter to Hans Küng of February 2014, where he said he felt “grateful to be united to Pope Francis by a great identity of views and a heartfelt friendship.” And he considered his “only and last task to sustain his pontificate with prayer.”

Francis wanted to underline the identity of views with Benedict on some important issues, such as gender. 

Two days after the trip to Armenia, Francis participated in a tribute for the 65th anniversary of Benedict’s priestly ordination and thanked him: “Thanks especially to you, Holy Father: your kindness, from the first moment of the choice, at any moment of my life here, moves me, it really takes me — more so than the Vatican gardens — towards beauty. His goodness is where I live: I feel protected.”

Foolish prejudices and rumours

In a letter addressed to the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, made public on March 12 last year, Benedict referred to the appearance of books on Francis’s thinking. The controversy that arose with that letter, which had nothing to do with Benedict, has obscured part of its content, in which he said:

“I applaud this initiative which is intended to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice according to which Pope Francis would be only a practical man devoid of particular theological or philosophical formation, while I would be solely a theoretician of theology who could understand little of the concrete life of a Christian today.

“The little volumes demonstrate, rightly so, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help in seeing the interior continuity between the two pontificates, albeit with all the differences of style and temperament.”

Another “silly prejudice” about Benedict was referred to by Francis in the airplane press conference during his return from the United Arab Emirates in February this year. To a question about allegations of abuse by clergy of consecrated women, Francis referred to everything Benedict did about it when he was a cardinal and when he was elected Pope. And he highlights: “The folklore about Pope Benedict makes him seem so good — he is good, a piece of bread is worse than him — but weak; but there’s nothing weak [in him]. He’s a strong man, a consistent man.”

Francis wanted to underscore the identity of views with Benedict on some important issues. For example, in a 2016 dialogue with bishops of Poland, dealing with the issue of the ideological colonization of gender ideology, he said: “In a conversation with Pope Benedict, who is in good health and very perceptive, he said to me, ‘Holiness, this is the age of sin against God the Creator.’ He is very perceptive.”  

And Benedict has also supported Francis on some occasions. For example, in his reflections about sexual abuse in the Church in April, he concluded with these words: “At the end of my reflections I would like to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today. Thank you, Holy Father!”  

Shortly thereafter, on a return flight from Romania, Francis himself stressed that Benedict had a very clear head: “Every time I go to visit him I feel him so. And I take his hand and make him speak. He speaks little, slowly, but with the same profundity as ever. Because Benedict’s problem is his knees, not his head.”

Perhaps many thought that Benedict’s resignation was going to be his last sacrifice for the Church, after a lifetime of surrender. But he is still providing another service of great importance: to support, with his discretion and exemplary conduct, with his humility, with his prayer, the work of Pope Francis.

And, in a way he is setting down a path for future popes emeriti. This is the truth of the matter – even if it doesn’t create an exciting script for Netflix.

Juan Enrique Novo writes for Aceprensa, from which this article has been republished (in translation).   

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet