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Jim McDermottApril 14, 2023
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)

This week, I had the chance to watch Hulu’s “The Pope: Answers,” in which Pope Francis has an in-person conversation with 10 young people. It is a tremendous, must-watch piece of work on multiple levels.

After 10 years of Francis, viewers are of course expecting that the pope will have some thought-provoking, pastoral zingers. And he definitely delivers: People who use Bible passages to justify the condemnation of L.G.B.T. people are “infiltrators who use the church for their personal passions,” he says. “Deep within, those people are living severe inconsistencies. They judge others because they can’t atone for their own faults.”

Responding to a comment about how white immigrants to the United States are treated much better than non-white migrants, Francis replied: “I say this very respectfully: It’s as if there were first-class and second-class immigrants. If you come from Ukraine, from that big tragedy, you are more welcome and fondly welcome, which is fine. However, if you come from Africa, you get rejected, or they try to find a way to send you back.”

Hulu’s “The Pope: Answers,” in which Pope Francis has an in-person conversation with 10 young people, is a tremendous, must-watch piece of work on multiple levels.

And on the topic of sex, Francis described the catechism as “still in diapers. I think we Christians haven’t always had a mature catechism regarding sex.” When confessing about sex, he encouraged people not to think of what they’ve done as “nasty” but rather to say, “I handled sexuality poorly.”

But in some ways even more impressive than the pope’s comments were the 10 young people themselves. Even as they acknowledged their nervousness privately beforehand—this “is the weirdest thing I have ever done in my life,” said one young woman—with the pope they were fearless, talking about everything from their own sexual experiences to women’s ordination with equal ease and passion, even respectfully challenging the pope when they disagreed with him. “I think Jesus would walk with that woman” who had an abortion, one woman says. “He wouldn’t judge her like they would during Mass at a church.”

While what is going to get reported are mostly the pope’s responses—he said on the topic of abortion, “A woman who has an abortion cannot be left alone. We should stay with her,” but also, “Staying by her side is one thing but justifying the act is something else”—I think I found it even more thrilling just to see a conversation like that taking place in front of and with the pope. The fact is, most of us who are older have been taught that there are certain things you just don’t talk about around priests or perhaps in a religious context at all.

To watch people operate who have none of that baggage is enormously liberating. Their freedom reveals how much more freedom is possible for us, too. And also, how totally appropriate those kinds of conversations are: No matter what the young people reveal about themselves or have to say, Francis gives no sign that there’s any problem—because there isn’t. “My duty is to always welcome,” the pope says to a nonbinary member of the group. “The church cannot close its doors on anyone.”

In some ways even more impressive than the pope’s comments were the 10 young people themselves.

The conversation of “The Pope: Answers” also offers a provocative image of what church could be. Personally, I think one reason we don’t see more conversations like this within the church is that there is an apprehension that conversations like this are not likely to end well. Our leadership fears that conversation will naturally raise Catholics’ expectations for the possibility of change when there is no such possibility, leading people to feel like their experiences have been dismissed.

It certainly may be the case that allowing people to speak openly about their experiences will raise expectations, although what those expectations might include could be a lot of things, including just an ongoing and honest conversation within the church. It is so clear watching “The Pope: Answers” that simply the experience of having this kind of conversation is enormously meaningful for everyone involved.

But I think our apprehension about conversation also points to a deeper anxiety in the church that is worth excavating. Part of the reason that “The Pope: Answers” is so exciting is that it’s dramatic. Honest, open conversation is in fact always dramatic because you don’t know where it is going to go, or what is going to happen. When we give ourselves to a conversation, we relinquish control.

I dare you to watch “The Pope: Answers” and not find it riveting television. As Catholics, I dare us all to watch it and not find within it a glimpse of a church within our reach.

That is the very same dynamic that we experience with God. If you open yourself to the Lord, prepare for adventures. He may be a God of loving kindness, but he is also full of surprises.

Among the pastoral leadership of the church, I wonder whether we may be apprehensive of real conversation at times not only because we fear we know what it might lead to but because we do not know. We have no idea what might happen there or what questions or issues it may raise in our conversation partners and in us.

But therein lies the call of our faith. “Be not afraid,” we hear Jesus say over and over in this season of Easter. His words are a form of acknowledgment of our reality: God understands that when we are faced with something new or uncertain, we’re going to be frightened or uneasy. And that’s O.K.

But his command is also a promise: No matter how hard our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, in fact there is nothing we need worry about. Letting these kinds of conversations happen will be a blessing. All things work for the good for those who love God.

I have no stock in Hulu. They are not an America advertiser, as far as I know. I also realize that the idea of a 90-minute conversation between the pope and a bunch of young people doesn’t exactly sound like we’re in edge-of-your-seat territory. “The Pope: Answers” is definitely not a John Wick film.

Still, I dare you to watch “The Pope: Answers” and not find it riveting television. As Catholics, I dare us all to watch it and not find within it a glimpse of a church within our reach.

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