When I caught the first previews of HBO’s The Young Pope, I rolled my eyes and reached for the remote. “How original”, I thought, “a show depicting naughty priests and Vatican corruption.” Such tales, of course, have been staples of European pulp fiction stretching back the Protestant Reformation and beyond. I assumed it would feature a sinister atheist pope, set against a backdrop of Vatican homoeroticism and greed. Needless to say, I ignored the show’s premiere and didn’t bother watching the subsequent weeks’ episodes.
Then something unexpected happened. I came upon a post over at Cosmos in the Lost, hailing the series as the second coming of Brideshead Revisited. Skeptical but intrigued, I did further googling. How could such a show be gaining a cult following among young, traditionalist Catholics? On a Facebook group I administer, I shared the article and asked my Catholic/Orthodox comrades if they’d seen the series. While some prudent gentlemen expressed skepticism or hostility towards the show, others sang its praises. I decided I’d have to watch the thing for myself.
So I did.
Does the show earn a Maccabee thumbs up? I think so. If viewed in the right context there’s a lot of fun to be had. But before I get ahead of myself, here’s my general assessment of the series. (I’ll avoid divulging any major spoilers):
Lenny Belardo, Archbishop of New York, has been elected pope. Played by Jude Law, he’s young, handsome and mysterious. The Cardinals don’t know much about him, and we come to find out that he was elected as a compromise candidate between warring liberal and conservative factions of the College. Vatican elites assumed a moderate young pontiff would be easy to manipulate, unlikely to rock the boat, and placed their bets on Belardo.
This was a catastrophic gamble.
Lenny provocatively assumes the name Pius XIII – and like the current President – he intends to drain the swamp. The days of ecumenism, dialogue, false mercy, liturgical dance and kumbaya around the interreligious campfire are over. Accommodating liberal modernity has gained the Church nothing. No more compromises. No more cheap grace.
It’s time to make the Vatican great again.
Pius XIII bans photographers and Papal merchandise. It’s about God now, not him. More radically still, he orders the expulsion of all homosexuals from the clergy and seminaries. When warned that such a policy would decimate the ranks of the clergy, he remains unwavering. There can be no room for hypocrisy in the priesthood. Better to have a handful of crusaders than an army of lukewarm, cafeteria Catholics.
Pius believes postmodern man is orphaned, and will only return to a Church that is mysterious, inaccessible, beautiful and demanding. He cultivates this sense of mystery by refusing to be photographed or seen in public. No interviews are granted, no autographs signed. Even his first papal address in St. Peter’s Square is intentionally delivered with minimal lighting to prevent his face from being seen. He is rigidly orthodox, ruthlessly austere, and crystal clear.
In sum, Pius is the anti-Francis.
And just as elements of the Deep State appear to be sabotaging President Trump, a disgruntled cohort of establishment cardinals quickly plot to take down Pius. They order opposition research into his past and set future traps. There’s only one problem. Pius has an impeccable background. By all accounts, he is a living saint. An orphan literally raised by sisters in the Church. He cannot be blackmailed – and he’s taking no prisoners.
What makes the show so much fun initially is its radical divergence from the anticipated narrative. We expect to be shown a debauched pope. Instead, we’re given one who is radically traditional. At this point, one thinks “Ok, I see what they’re doing here. He’s going to be a conservative villain – a medieval homophobe we’re supposed to hate because he’s intolerant.” But before one can get too cozy with this premise, the writers begin to make Pius increasingly likeable, human, and holy. By the end of the series, the one question my friends and I were debating was, “is Lenny a saint?” Suffice it to say this question does not come to mind during the first few episodes, when Pius is particularly rough around the ages and laying down the law. After it was all said and done, I appreciated the writers slowly and methodically adding depth to Pius, rather than typecasting him as a hero or villain from the outset. It makes for a much more compelling (and realistic) story – if you have the patience to stick with it.
Aesthetically the series is also a triumph. Magnificent vistas of Rome, Vatican City, vestments and sacred art permeate every episode. The music is likewise delightful, and I’m still drawn to the soundtrack while lesson planning or grading.
The prose occasionally drifts into poetry and some scenes – particularly those of prayer – are profoundly stirring:
Lastly, the series is simply fun. Pius’ cavalier persona and razor wit make for some hilarious moments. Momentarily escaping to an alternate universe in which the Vatican is aggressively orthodox is also psychologically restorative, given the current state of affairs.
The Catholic gentleman must embark on this series with the right mindset. This is not an EWTN production. It is not designed to edify you in your faith or present a positive image of the Church. It’s HBO. This means there’s quality acting and fine writing – but it also means there’s profanity and few instances of nudity/sex. It’s not something to be watched with your kids. It is to be approached as entertainment or orthodox escapism, little more. If you appreciate quality shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and True Detective in spite of their adult themes, The Young Pope is worth visiting. If you prefer to keep your hands clean of secular entertainment, avoid it.
There are the occasional theological/linguistic inaccuracies and the plot is far-fetched to say the least. The viewer is also put off by Pius’ lack of charity in the initial episodes and his willingness to break serious rules. (i.e. ordering a confessor to break the seal of confession in order to help him drain the clerical swamp). One also has to wonder, with some nervous apprehension, where the writers will take the story in the second season. It could go south rather quickly, given the source.
If you have HBO, your best bet is to stream the series via HBOGo. If you don’t have HBO, there are two options: asking a friend or relative who does to lend you their username/password, or creating an account with HBO Now – HBO’s version of Netflix – and watching the show during the free 30 day trial period.