If I had to guess what network would do a miniseries about the pope, HBO would not be at the top of the list. Their lineup has included such gruesome and explicit shows as Game of Thrones, Girls, and The Sopranos. Now, they’re taking on the Holy Father.
The Young Pope is set to release in October, airing on the Sky Network in the UK, Italy, and Germany, as well as in the U.S. via HBO and in France via Canal+. The trailer is deliberately mysterious, showing the first American pope, the fictional character Lenny Belardo , smoking and praying in numerous fascinating positions: at the bottom of a swimming pool, in front of a row of trucks at night.
Belardo is played by Jude Law, who portrayed Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Homes (2009) and Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows (2011). His humorous and expressive Dr. Watson becomes an enigmatic pontiff raised by an American nun (played by Diane Keaton, famous for The Godfather trilogy [1972, 1974, 1990]) in Vatican City, who struggles with his faith.
Creator and director Paolo Sorrentino, who is famous for winning a foreign-language Oscar in 2014 for The Great Beauty, said the miniseries will focus on difficult faith issues. According to Deadline, Sorrentino said the TV series is about:
The clear signs of God’s existence. The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost. The greatness of holiness, so great as to be unbearable when you are fighting temptations and when all you can do is to yield to them. The inner struggle between the huge responsibility of the Head of the Catholic Church and the miseries of the simple man that fate (or the Holy Spirit) chose as Pontiff. Finally, how to handle and manipulate power in a state whose dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love towards one’s neighbor.
While these themes may sound like a modern perspective on faith, they have deep roots in Christian doctrine.
Next Page: Reasons to hope this miniseries will do Christianity — and Catholicism — justice.
After all, the signs of God’s presence are strewn throughout the Old and New Testaments, and the struggles of faith when God seems absent also feature prominently in the stories of Abraham the Patriarch, David the King, and Elijah the Prophet. Even Jesus on the cross asked, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The Apostle Paul deals with the inability not to sin (Romans 7:19-20) and how the Holy Spirit works in us despite our yielding to temptation.
The fascinating part of the description — and the one that gives me the most hope for its faithful portrayal — is the frank admission that Catholic “dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love toward one’s neighbor.” This is why Christianity has always had a strained relationship with government — Jesus explicitly said, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” and encouraged love and service over ruling.
While Game of Thrones has portrayed gruesome death and graphic sexual content, it has arguably gotten many religious themes correct. Believers who witness miracles are certain that their God worked through them — as the miracles happen when they are weak in faith. This echoes the Apostle Paul (author of much of the New Testament), who wrote, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).”
To see a pontiff wrestle with these points may cast doubts on the head of the Roman Catholic Church, except for the fact that he is an entirely fictional character. Lenny Belardo becomes the first Italian-American pontiff, named Pope Pius XIII (the last Pope Pius was the XII).
Furthermore, while much stress has been placed on the fact that Catholics believe the pope to be “infallible,” their actual belief is that the pontiff is only perfect when speaking ex cathedra, from his official seat on matters of faith and morals. Popes very rarely do this, and when they do they are naturally extra careful not to mess up.
Furthermore, any good Catholic can tell you that when popes do speak ex cathedra, it is to officially declare something already believed by the majority of Catholics and developing clearly from scripture and tradition. Those of us who are not Catholic can disagree with these doctrines, but there is no reason to assume that showing the Holy Father smoking or praying at the bottom of a swimming pool would violate Catholics’ trust in the holy office.
There are a few warning signs, however. The IMDB cast list includes Delaina Mitchell from Inherent Vice (2014) as “Lenny’s Ex-Girlfriend.” Her role could be limited to flashbacks or to scenes before Lenny becomes pope, or even to limited post-relationship encounters (wouldn’t you seek out the pope if he was your ex?), but her presence on the cast list is suspicious, if only because the infamous HBO agreed to distribute the series.
It will be fascinating to see Pope Francis’ response to the miniseries. Some have called this fictional Pope Pius XIII “a highly conservative character,” and Francis is notoriously liberal. Then again, the pope explicitly calls for a “revolution” in the trailer.
See the trailer on the next page!