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Pope Francis speaks with young people in Rome in this undated photo for a documentary, "The Pope: Answers," released by Disney+ April 5, 2023. (CNS photo/Courtesy Disney+ España)

The enduring phrase of this papacy is “a culture of encounter.” Pope Francis has continuously used this phrase in speeches, homilies, encyclicals and interviews over his first decade as leader of the Catholic Church. In his latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” he writes, “To speak of a ‘culture of encounter’ means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (No. 216). “The Pope: Answers,” a new film on Hulu featuring the pope in conversation with 10 young Spanish-speaking people between the ages of 20 and 25, is a lived example of the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis exhorts us.

The conversation with Gen Zers from Spain, Senegal, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and the United States was filmed last June in a studio in the trendy Roman neighborhood of Pigneto, about a 20-minute drive from where the pope lives at the Vatican. There, Pope Francis—“the big boss,” as the young people refer to him while waiting anxiously for him to enter the spacious room—greets the international group and launches into a full-hearted conversation that touches on everything from dating, sex and Tinder to money, abortion, sexual abuse, and the faith and faithlessness of young people.

As a journalist on the Vatican beat, I tend to shy away from writing anything too personal about Pope Francis. Just the facts, please; there are enough people with opinions, positive and negative, about the world’s first Jesuit pope. But this new film merits a departure from my usual approach—and could even be read as a defense of what some are branding as the pope engaging in a superficial conversation that places the Catholic Church on a dangerous, murky and permissive path on key issues, especially regarding sexual morality.

“The Pope: Answers” is a lived example of the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis exhorts us.

This film is a masterclass in engagement, openness and vulnerability across ages, genders and beliefs that we can all learn from. It is the clearest example of the synodal church for which the pope yearns and calls. More than any specific thing the pope says in this film—and he has some surprising quips—it is his ability to engage such a diverse cohort of young people with seeming ease that most endeared me to this film. Among those who sit down to the conversation with the pope are an “atheist or agnostic,” a pro-choice and a pro-life Catholic, an evangelical, a survivor of sexual abuse, a Muslim man, a nonbinary person and a former nun from Peru, who is “not a Catholic anymore or a believer,” she admits to the pope. “I don’t know what exists and what doesn’t,” Lucía, who is now in a homosexual relationship, says.

The pope breaks the ice by asking why anyone would want to talk to him. “Isn’t it boring to talk to a priest?” he asks. “No, it’s actually interesting,” says someone in the room, while nods of agreement are captured by the filmmakers. The questions immediately roll off the tongues of the young: “Do you receive a salary?” “Do you have a cell phone?” The conversation starts with these somewhat frivolous questions but gets deeper with every question: “Have you ever been in a relationship?” “Could you picture a woman in your role someday?” “What do you think about Tinder?”

Despite the 60-year age difference between the pope and his interlocutors, and the disagreements many of them clearly share on fundamental matters of the church’s moral teaching, the pope and his newfound friends listen attentively to each other.

The pope never treats the conversation as a mere Q&A. He takes his time to hear the context and the lived experience in which the questions of each person are wrapped. He never rushes to correct anyone. Quite the opposite, it is the young people who push back against the church’s chief leader when they disagree with him or feel he has misunderstood something they have said. “What about all the people who could not come here,” asks Víctor, referring to all those who have suffered abuse in the church but who can’t tell the pope their story in person, as Juan, a survivor, does in the documentary.

This film is a masterclass in engagement, openness and vulnerability across ages, genders and beliefs that we can all learn from.

Or in the discussion on abortion, for example, Milagros, a Catholic feminist woman and a former catechist who now ministers to women who have procured abortions, expresses her dissatisfaction with what she sees as the church’s condemnatory stance toward these women. “Why does the church want to stand between a woman and her rights?” she asks the pope. “I think Jesus would walk with that woman; he wouldn’t judge her like they would do at a Mass in a church,” she continues with passion and fighting back tears. “They go to church to find God’s love. They want to listen to God’s word.”

Then, María, a pro-life Catholic who is a member of the Neocatechumenal Way and meets with women outside abortion clinics “to talk to the girls who are going to walk in there, to ask them what they need or what led them to make the decision” and to seek means to help them, intervenes. “Don’t you see the suffering abortion causes?” she asks, turning to Milagros.

Later, Lucía, a former nun from Peru—who left her order after she experienced “psychological abuse”—responds sharply to the pope likening those who perform abortions to “hitmen.” “I think it’s a little simplistic,” she says, locking eyes with the pope. Noting that most abortions are performed in “privileged” contexts, she highlights that abortions can also become a serious “issue of public health” in impoverished nations.

The pope takes this 10-minute discussion in his stride, makes minimal remarks and listens to the experiences of all the women in the room. “I thank you for having the sensitivity to see that this is not a mathematical problem. It’s a human problem,” he says, clearly affected by all he has heard. The pope assures them that he does not mean sensitivity in a patronizing way, as if critiquing them for being overly sentimental. Rather, “feeling a human problem, that is what I mean,” he says. “A woman who has an abortion cannot be left alone, we should walk with her. We should not send her to hell.” But before the filmmakers cut to another heavy topic, sexual abuse in the church, the pope adds, “Staying by her side is one thing, but justifying the act is another.”

The pope learns about hook-up dating apps, nonbinary people, the world of livestreamed pornography, forced and economic migration, and teenage pregnancy from those who live out these realities.

Thus continues the 82-minute film, where the pope learns about hook-up dating apps, nonbinary people, the world of livestreamed pornography, forced and economic migration, and teenage pregnancy from those who live out these realities.

But the film is not simply an opportunity for the young people to offload their concerns and emotions on the pope, which Francis repeatedly encourages: “Be free”; “Express yourself however you want. Cry if you want to. Don’t worry, son.”

The pope also reveals areas on which he appears adamant that the church is not prepared to budge from, as with questions related to the ordination of women. “Therein lies a theological problem,” he says, much to the perplexed reaction of his young audience. “There are two constituting streams within the church, as in two principles. In ministry, are men. In motherhood, which is much more important, are women. The promotion of women is aligned much more with their vocation as women, not in a ministerial machismo.”

It is also a time for the pope to exercise his role as a pastor who, having smelled the sheep, is able to minister and respond, and even to gently challenge. “Is it valid to eliminate human life to solve a problem?” he asks in response to abortion. “It is a serious and social problem. We are not perfect,” he says in relation to the progress on stamping out sexual abuse within the church’s ranks.

In response to the need for credible witnesses in the church—whose lives reflect their professed faith—the pope adds, having cited the story of a nun who worked with children who lived on the streets of Haiti for 20 years and had just been murdered. Without such people, “when there is no testimony, the church gets rusty,” he says. “It gets rusty because it becomes a club of nice people who do their religious duties but lack the courage to get out to the peripheries.”

The pope also shares counsel for the ordained, including priests who hear the confessions of women who have chosen abortion: “I advise them: ‘Please, don’t ask many questions, and be merciful as Jesus.’ Jesus welcomes all. No matter how much of a sinner you are, or if the world has abandoned you, Jesus will never leave you alone.”

There really is nothing I have ever seen that matches the experience of this film—and not because I think it is a perfect advertisement for the Catholic Church or the pope, for that matter.

But, perhaps his strongest words in the film are reserved for when two-thirds in, a person who identified as nonbinary asks the pope, “What’s your opinion on church people or priests who promote hate and use the Bible to support hate speech?”

“They are infiltrators who use the church for their personal passions, for their personal narrowness,” the pope responds without hesitation. “It is one of the corruptions within the church; those narrow-minded ideologies…. Deep within them, all these people have an internal conflict, a conflict of severe inconsistencies. They judge others because they don’t know how to ask forgiveness for their own faults.”

There really is nothing I have ever seen that matches the experience of this film—and not because I think it is a perfect advertisement for the Catholic Church or the pope, for that matter. There are moments, blessedly few, where the pope lacks the lingo of the young and is talking in a foreign way, even at cross purposes. This experience, though, appears to be exactly what the filmmakers had hoped would happen.

“We thought that in this encounter there could be a generational clash and not only a generational clash, but also a clash in thought, between how young people see the world today and how the pope may see it,” Jordi Évole, the film’s director, said in a brief interview with J.D. Long-García, senior editor at America. “In spite of that, I believe that the result is a dialogue, a debate, that enriches anyone who sees it, whether they are believers or non-believers. I believe it has very important universal value. It transcends the fact that it has to be a film that only believers see, it doesn't have to be only believers who see it, much to the contrary.”

Still, the pope must be applauded for being perfectly himself throughout, authentic in every way. There appears to be no veneer to Pope Francis—from the beginning, where he hobbles into the dining room at his home, with the support of his cane, to when he offers cookies to the filmmakers at breakfast and begins the working day at his cluttered and messy desk, to the laughter and emotion he shows, like a grandfather to the young people at times, and the sincere appreciation that he expresses to each one at the end of the film. “Thank you. Each one of you has been brave enough to tell the truth,” he says shortly before leaving the room. “I liked that because each one of you has said it with your own personality, and from your own lives and conflicts—because we all have conflicts… traumas… flaws.”

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