By JASON HOROWITZFEB.
Jude Law and Diane Keaton in HBO’s “The Young Pope.” When comparing the TV show to the real Vatican, truth can be stranger than fiction. Credit Gianni Fiorito/HBO
HBO’s “The Young Pope” depicts the dashing and fictitious Pope Pius XIII as a ruthless knife fighter willing to cut down anyone in his path back to a purer church. Yet as I binge-watched the first season in my Washington basement, after weeks of watching real-life Vatican power politics in Rome, I couldn’t help thinking that the Young Pope has nothing on the Old Pope.
Which is to say, the 40-something American Pope Pius XIII (played by the British and youngish Jude Law) may rule the Vatican as an awful authoritarian, boasting that he is a “politician far cannier” than the canniest cardinal, but the 80-year-old Pope Francis is the one conducting a political master class. It’s just one facet where I found “The Young Pope” — for all its over-the-top plotlines, Holy-See-as-a-Björk-video imagery and sumptuousness typical of a Paolo Sorrentino production — had some resonance in the real-life Roman Catholic Church.
Armed with an old John Paul II Popener (a souvenir bottle opener) for spiritual refreshment during later episodes, and getting back to a Vatican City State of mind as the new Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, I settled in for an eight-hour papal audience with a show that has its finale on Monday night. Here are some moments in which the Technicolor paled in comparison with the real thing.
The Young Pope’s garments come up short on the thread count
The Young Pope, a traditionalist who, like Benedict XVI, clearly thinks the rich history of the church is reflected in its ornate raiment, really does it up in Episode 5. He even dresses to a soundtrack of “Sexy and I Know It.”
But the damask curtains he wraps himself in are yards of fabric short of what it takes to make the cappa magna, the long train of billowing red silk preferred by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the conservative whom Francis has made a habit out of diminishing. Cardinal Burke’s taste for velvet gloves and extravagant brocades once reportedly prompted Vatican officials to request that he “tone it down a bit.”
Soccer is a religion in Italy, and the Vatican is a very Italian institution
When Episode 7 opened with the portly and Machiavellian secretary of state, the No. 2 at the Vatican, watching a Naples soccer game in a Speedo-tight team outfit, I recalled how the last real-life secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, decorated his apartment with the black-and-white scarves of the Juventus soccer team. Cardinal Bertone even spoke, seemingly in earnest, about starting a competitive Vatican squad.
Parts of the Vatican press corps often seem like a papal choir
In Episode 8, the Young Pope strolls through the steerage section of the papal plane and gazes over a dozing press corps. Only one reporter is awake, and instead of asking the pope a question, offers a compliment. That deference is small potatoes compared with the adoration some in the Vatican press corps show the actual pope.
On the evening of March 13, 2013, white smoke puffed out of the Sistine Chapel and the new pope’s name was announced in Latin inside the Vatican press office. Some of the Italians immediately went berserk. “Bergoglio! Bergoglio!” one reporter screamed as tears drenched his cheeks. As I and some other American reporters sought to confirm that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had indeed been elected pope (Latin is not our strong suit and you don’t want to blow that one), the hugging and weeping and shouting continued unabated. Finally, one venerable English-language Vatican reporter stormed out of his office and, with vulgarities, emphatically urged the revelers to shut up, adding, “Some of us are trying to work here.”
In today’s church, advocating inclusion may be more radical than conservative retrenchment
The plot of “The Young Pope” is basically one of subterfuge against a traditionalist pope, a mirror image of the dynamic at play in today’s Vatican. But Mr. Law’s young Lenny Belardo (he’s got a name and an accent you would expect to be saying “First Time Long Time” on WFAN) struck me as a political novice compared with the octogenarian who is really in charge of the Roman Catholic Church.
For instance, in Episode 5, Mr. Law exclaims, “I am the young pope — I put no stock in consensus.” He really should. Francis has wielded his enormous popularity as a weapon for his reform agenda, and his critics inside the church see little of the benevolent Droopy Dog grandfather perceived by so much of the Catholic world. Real-life critics of the real-life pope whisper that his pontificate can be rigid and unforgiving. They point to how he asserted his power last month by ordering the ferreting out of Freemasons from the nearly thousand-year-old Knights of Malta, and then punished the apparent disobedience of the order’s grand master by sacking him, the leader of a sovereign state.
And while Young Pius XIII may snarl, “Everything that is hidden from me is sooner or later revealed,” Pope Francis already “knows all,” according to the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest close to the pope. When I asked Father Spadaro this month in Rome if Francis knew about any conspiring and plotting against him, he responded, “If the question is, ‘Is the pope aware of that which is happening?,’ the answer is ‘yes.’”
Personnel is policy in the Curia
The show accurately identifies the Congregation for Bishops as a key battlefield for its critical role in recruiting and forming the future prelates of the church. The Young Pope wants to weed out all the homosexuals; Francis instead removed conservatives and stacked the congregation with pastors in his image, including Chicago’s newly installed Cardinal Blase Cupich, who has a name better than any on HBO, “Game of Thrones” included. I met Cardinal Cupich in November, shortly after he had been officially elevated to cardinal.
In a sitting room overlooking the Vatican, the new cardinal joked that, growing up in a family of nine, he was used to hand-me-downs, and that his new red outfit amounted to “the first time I have my own clothes.” More seriously, he continued, “You have to deal with reality when you have a big family, so I look at where people’s struggles are.” In other words, the culture warriors who were ascendant under Benedict and John Paul II left too many people out. The agenda of the Young Pope was old news.
A couple of hours later, I saw Cardinal Cupich again at Paul VI Hall, where the new cardinals, arrayed like vendors at a fan expo, received well-wishers and the old Vatican guard looking to score some Brownie points with the new princes.
The Chicago archbishop had draped the winning Chicago Cubs “W” banner over a placard announcing him as a new eminence. Nothing on “The Young Pope” comes close in stretching the suspension of disbelief.