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A new pope

BusinessWorld logo BusinessWorld 2/16/2017

There's a bitter (albeit unspoken) struggle in our midst, mirroring the public one between the Left and Right, between so-called progressives and conservatives. The ideas dividing the contending parties are mostly known. It's the faces behind them that are not. And nothing demonstrates the physical manifestation, the personas, of that divide more than the new HBO series, The Young Pope.

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The show's underlying premise is the Conclave's surprise election of a 47-year-old cardinal from New York. Lenny Belardo, by the simple act of choosing the name Pope Pius XIII, signaled drastic changes to the Catholic Church.

And changes there are.

The opening credits is sheer genius: emblematic, unashamedly capturing the contending philosophies, visual theme, and overarching attitude of The Young Pope.

A sardonic, nonchalant Jude Law, garbed in simple papal white, strolls across the screen, classic paintings depicting Church history as background. The names of the shows actors and producers slowly keep up with that background, in neon, with modernity's fragile flickering.

A comet accompanies Law, who, near the end of the sequence, breaks the fourth wall with a knowing wink at the audience, letting out a smile at some private malicious joke.

It ends with Maurizio Cattelan's The Ninth Hour: a sculpture of Pope John Paul II, clutching at a cross, smashed by the comet.

Some may consider the imagery blasphemous. I don't.

The subtleties are brilliant: the static paintings of past events, the comet sent from on high witnessing the Church's progress (even heralding its beginning), the vibrant Law confidently walking past it all: he's studied and lived that history thoroughly and thus feels no way compelled to even glance at it.

The battle is fundamentally between the young and old.

And here's the interesting part: it's the young Pope Pius XIII who is the conservative, fighting a Curia of aging liberal cardinals still besotted with their 1960's era interpretation of Vatican II of their own rebellious youths.

That battle is waged now in the Vatican. And perhaps the Philippines.

Younger priests who grew up with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, confident of the power of reason and Church doctrine. Then the older priests, more interested in "social justice" and of personal ideas of mercy; stridently allying themselves with (as the media is wont to refer to him) the "liberal reformer" Pope Francis.

In "Waiting for a Young Pope" (First Things, March 2017), Pope Francis is seen as "one of the great antagonists in this battle. He has a penchant for anecdotes in which young priests are rigid and worldly, while older ones are gentle and wise." During "a homily in September, he made fun of young priests for wearing more traditional vestments: 'And it is said that the Church does not allow women priests!'"

This is the context that The Young Pope is reveling in: the young giving the old their comeuppance.

However, The Young Pope goes deeper: being old is not merely a matter of years. One can be young yet old.

Millennials will tribally like the idea of youth overcoming experience (let's ignore for the moment that Pius's conservative values directly go against both boomers' and millennials' generally), but how many of them will know, much less appreciate the implications of, the fact that Law is shuffling to the riffs of Bob Dylan's hymn, later recreated by Jimi Hendrix, and now covered for the series by British rapper Devlin.

And what of the figure of Pope John Paul II being knocked down by a comet? That it's God's will that the old make way for the new?

But the irony (and profundity conveyed) here is that when Pope John Paul II was elected pope, he was The young pope: athletic, handsome, vibrant, a man just little over a decade older than Pius XIII, who transformed the Church by defending its doctrines against liberalism and is now deservedly called "Great."

Then there is Pius XIII's friend, Cardinal Dussolier (not exactly the most chaste character in the series), of the same age as Pius, who gave this GK Chestertonian but nevertheless tired old man's confession:

"I'm not a hero. Because I'm afraid. Like you. Perhaps that is why you have loved me, just a little. No? Because I didn't make you uncomfortable. I never asked you to choose... I loved you for the way you are, not for the way you ought to be."

On the other hand, Pope Pius XIII, wrapped in traditional garments, declaring indifference to the world, that the "liturgy will no longer be a social engagement," positively enjoys making people uncomfortable.

Unafraid, he is the one actually, truly, young -- deftly bridging life's freshness with the truths of the past.

This is life and power played within reality at its most mysterious.

Those watching House of Cards are better off with The Young Pope: the former is merely checkers to the latter's chess, gamesmanship at the metaphysical, supernatural level.

Jemy Gatdula is the international law lecturer at the UA&P School of Law and Governance and Executive Director of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.

Twitter @jemygatdula

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