Habemus Papam

Habemus Papam

Habemus Papam. Nanni Moretti, director. 2011.

When it appeared he might be elected pontiff, he described feeling as if a guillotine was coming down upon him. Later, telling a German audience of pilgrims that he prayed to be spared, he playfully added: “Evidently this time [God] didn’t listen to me.”

As of 28 February 2013, Benedict XVI will step aside: “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Upon hearing of his transition, and upon reading his words, my mind turned to when Cardinal Melville was elected pope. Readers, perhaps, have not heard of Melville. That might be because he’s “fiction” (a detail irrelevant to the equally fictional bishop of Motopo who suggests, to Father Quixote in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, that “perhaps we are all fictions in the mind of God”).

Habemus Papam is an Italian film billed as comedy. While gentle instances of humour certainly exist throughout, “comedy” is a stretch. The title is based upon words proclaimed from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. The words signal that a newly elected pope is about to make his first appearance to representatives of the world gathered below in St. Peter’s Square. These words, in that context, were last heard eight years ago when Benedict stepped onto that balcony and the words will soon be heard again. When these words – which mean “We Have a Pope” – are announced in Habemus Papam, a horrible shriek is heard. This is followed by tears and by words such as “help me” and “I can’t do this!” All are coming from the newly elected Melville.

A specialist in psychoanalysis is sought by the Vatican and brought to Melville. I just can’t go on, the newly elected pope explains to the therapist. God sees abilities in me I don’t have. Where are these abilities? I look for them and find nothing. Unable to work freely with the pope, the suggestion is made that the pope be taken to another therapist. A session is arranged and when brought into contact with his new listener, the pope explains: I can’t do anything anymore. I’m always tired … I’d like to do so much. Upon leaving her office, the pope evades his own security team and loses himself among the people of Rome.

One voice presents this film as the antithesis of a Dan Brown novel: “Brown’s stories peer with feverish, lurid imagination at the inner workings of the Catholic hierarchy, discovering all manner of ridiculous subterfuge, ruthlessness, and skullduggery” whereas, in contrast, Habemus Papam “hardly peers at all. It’s good-natured and inoffensive, regarding the cardinals with gentle amusements. But there’s no complexity or ambiguity, no depth or insight.”

I suppose I disagree with the latter part of that assessment. The new pope, Melville, is a sensitive man and capable of articulating his heartfelt emotions. His is a Church, he observes, which has often been unable to admit its faults. While absent from the Vatican, he hears a priest preach: “We need to show our wounds to God because he is the only one who can heal them.”

The Catholic Church presents both individual and Church as on pilgrimage. Both require honest self-identification before God. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church “attains its full perfection only in the glory of heaven”. Fascinating, in Habemus Papam, is the possibility raised that God might choose a reluctant man such as Melville to be pope; that God chooses such a man, perhaps, because such a man would have the unique strength and courage to voice his own faults and inadequacies. Melville sees himself as unable to be the one who will seek an encounter with all persons and as unable to model the love and understanding that all are owed and, because Melville sees these qualities as so essential to the ministry of the pope, he feels unqualified.

However, if only God can provide healing and if the Church is guilty, at times, of not recognizing its own faults, then perhaps God is being evidenced through the self-less Melville. Perhaps it is through the example of Melville that the healing of God will be mediated. Pace to the critic previously cited but a depth of insight does exist.

As for Benedict, evaluations of his papacy are bound to vary. Through his writings, however, I have experienced a sensitive man and one capable of articulating something of his own inner life. Perhaps greater transparency will emerge as will, perhaps, a better modelling of the love and understanding that all persons are owed. Perhaps also, however, the honesty of Benedict surrounding his own inadequacies communicate what it means to live in vulnerability. Only those stripped of pretense, perhaps Benedict teaches through his example, are capable of responding to the transforming love of God.


Habemus Papam does not have an MPAA rating.

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