X-Men and Pope Francis' Theology of Encounter

Some commentators and theologians have, over the past 15 months or so, drawn parallels between Pope Francis’ warm embrace of the world with Vatican II’s pastoral tone, in particular that of the Council’s “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” (“Gaudium et Spes”). This document famously started as follows:

The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men [sic] of our time, especially those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.

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That a pope would embrace and embody the spirit of an Ecumenical council does not seem too much of a stretch, actually. But that “the world” would embrace the pope’s vision is quite a bit more surprising. Nonetheless, it is what I witnessed as I sat through the newest Marvel feature: X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The movie offers a somewhat banal sci-fi plot. First, there’s its setting: in a not-so-distant future, the Mutants are hunted down by machines that strive to eradicate them (think Terminator). Then, the action is prompted by an old trick, a mutant version of the time machine experiment: one of the mutants can lead people back into the past, in order to change the future. You guessed it, one of our X-Men heroes is sent back to the time when the mutant-hunting machines were developed and first mass-produced, back in 1973.

Now, spoiler alert: the good guys win. That itself is not surprising. What is quite amazing is the dialogue between the 1973 version of Professor Xavier and his 2023-ish self, who meet via mutually enhanced mind-powers à la Xavier.

The 1973 version of Xavier is still struggling on several fronts, in particular, regarding the voices he hears thanks to his power. His ability to capture the lives of his fellow mutants, themselves misunderstood and rejected, causes him some rather painful sorrow. Hearing the cries of mutants around the world, the young Xavier cannot bear such vast and widespread pain. He decides to shut down his power with the help of a drug, and quite a bit of drinking too. But 1973 Xavier needs his powers to help save the world, as the movie unfolds. In his encounter with his later self, Xavier-the-younger shares his pain about the sorrow of so many with his older self. And that is when the arguably most crucial moment of the movie happens.

The 2023 Xavier tells his younger self: in being attentive to the sorrow of his brother-and-sister-mutants, he performs a much greater task than simply hearing them: he walks with them, helps them carry them burden, and brings them what they truly need: hope.

This is quite precisely the message of Pope Francis’ theology of encounter, of a church present to the cries of the poor at the image of Christ, bringing hope by tending to their wounds, needs, burdens, as a field hospital helps those most in need.

After his conversation with the older Xavier, the 1973 Professor turns into an expert surgeon in a field hospital for mutants: calming inordinate passions, reasoning hearts and leading the crew toward a more organized and successful path to healing the misunderstood mutants of the generations to come: the flourishing Xavier School for Gifted Children that we have gotten to know and love in the previous X-Men movies.

We all knew Xavier was a good and wise character. But, in this latest opus of the X-Men saga, his words lead us beyond philosophical sagacity or learned calm. They bring us to the frontier of the joys and grief of the world, precisely where they meet the joys and grief of the church: hope. This place is where Francis strives to lead the church, to entice each of us, followers of Christ, to go: the margins of suffering and real need of the world, where Christ’s words to the disciples become our reality of discipleship:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me (Mt 25:35-36).

So I’d like to advise you to bring your kids, families and friends to the newest X-Men movie (mindful of the PG 13 rating, of course). It may be the door to a fruitful conversation about the virtue of hope and our role in facilitating hope in the world, especially for those who cry and suffer in our midst.

Sure, there are clichés (the time machine plot, the deus ex machina of the encounter between younger and older Xavier), and even unhelpful shortcuts (the idea of erasing a painful past such that previous difficulties and grief are now no more). But the turning point of the lines between the two Xaviers is a rare moment of papal teaching inculturated into a popular work.

It also opens the door for a conversation with those around us. If Prof. Xavier teaches his younger self to care for the poor, ease their burden and bring them hope, how much more does Jesus have to offer us?

Quentin Dupont, S.J., will be missioned to Seattle starting this summer to work in pastoral ministry and teach finance at Seattle University.

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