Pope Francis made a historic trip to Iraq over the weekend and created waves by sitting down with Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq.
Popes in my lifetime have done some remarkable things in attempts to create global unity, but this is different.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, was intentional when he took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi. Ideas like, “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received, only what you have given,” seem to be a major motivation for Pope Francis nearly 800 years after St. Francis’s death.
From his humble, and sometimes controversial, beginnings as a cardinal in Argentina working with people in poverty until present day, Pope Francis genuinely cares about our planet and all the living creatures on it. He also is breaking long-standing rules on his way to providing love and care for our fellow humans regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status or sexual orientation. And apparently, unlike many of our U.S. politicians and outspoken religious leaders, Pope Francis believes in science and knows that things like climate change are real.
As a Christian documentary film and TV producer, I was invited to screen a new film coming out in the lead up to Easter 2021 by famed director Evgeny Affineevsky called Francesco. How appropriate that a Russian Jew (now Israeli) gay director who served in the Israeli Defense Forces would be the one to gain unprecedented access to the pope, camera crews with him all along the way. Made famous by the award-winning film Cries from Syria, Affineevsky has a profound ability to tell deeply intimate and personal stories of people with grace and empathy to the point of struggling with his own PTSD from the horrors he has witnessed.
Context is important for my review. I was born and raised as a Southern Baptist missionary kid in Bangkok, Thailand, during the Vietnam War. My wife of three decades, Erika, was born six months later to Hungarian-Puerto Rican parents in Angeles City in the Philippines because her Hungarian refugee father had become a captain in the U.S. Air Force at Clark Air Base. However, Erika spent almost all her upbringing in Puerto Rico, raised in the Catholic church.
When I told my Southern Baptist parents I was intending to marry a Catholic woman, there was a pause. While my parents loved and accepted Erika, I grew up being told that because of their theology Catholics aren’t going to heaven. We are, after all, saved by grace and not by works and deeds — or so the standard line went. While I have remained a Baptist, I can say emphatically that I share many more core theological and personal values with Pope Francis than I do with people like Franklin Graham or nearly all of the graduating class of Liberty University.
Don’t get me wrong: The Catholic church has its own baggage, and my wife would be the first person to highlight those issues. But to describe the power of the film Francesco I will use an example of this family dynamic.
“This is the highest form of compliment for a documentary director like Affineevsky.”
Prior to watching the film, I asked my wife if she wanted to watch a film about the pope with me. She said she was too busy and thanks but no thanks. I started the film before she left the room. Before I knew it, Erika had stopped at the door, then she sat down and ultimately stayed for the entire one hour and 56 minutes. Neither of us could turn away from the content. As a fellow filmmaker, I can tell you this is the highest form of compliment for a documentary director like Affineevsky.
Here’s my review of the film. Watch it. Set aside any preconceived notions you have of popes and the Catholic church. With a free and open mind, follow the mission of Pope Francis through the lens of this acclaimed director. You will see a story about what it truly means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, not a modern misinterpretation of a nationalistic Jesus frothing at the mouth with judgment and scorn.
You will hear words of love, forgiveness and humility. These words are the only reason I still have faith in God as expressed through Jesus Christ.
You will watch one of the most powerful and influential men in all of Christendom speak against misogyny, encouraging the power and influence of women in our faith.
“You will hear a religious leader sound the alarm on the climate crisis.”
You will hear a religious leader sound the alarm on the climate crisis and our relationship to nature.
In all humility, you will watch a man at the highest levels of Christian power ask for forgiveness of the poorest of the poor Rohingya Muslims for not doing enough to stop the genocide in Myanmar.
And, on behalf of the entire Catholic church, you will watch Pope Francis take on the serious issue of pedophilia in the church as he purges the leadership of the men who either have committed these crimes or, almost as bad, covered them up for decades.
In the words of an Argentinian victim of priestly abuse and gay activist Juan Carlos Cruz: “The church has to change that paradigm, that way of thinking that survivors are enemies of the church and want to destroy the church. It’s quite the opposite. There’s a lot of people that have been destroyed by the church and others that have been wronged in the worst way by the church, and yet they still want to move forward and call themselves Catholics.”
My recommendation is to do a favor for your soul during these troubling times and make sure you watch Francesco, a truly divine film.
Editor’s note: Francesco will premiere on Discovery+ March 28.
Craig Martin is a documentary television and film producer and co-host on the PBS docu-series, The Good Road. He is a member of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va., and serves on the board of Baptist News Global.
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