An audience with The Young Pope

Jude Law is the the dashing and fictitious Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope.
Jude Law is the the dashing and fictitious Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope.PHOTO: FX

WASHINGTON • HBO's The Young Pope depicts the dashing and fictitious Pope Pius XIII as a ruthless knife fighter willing to cut down anyone in his path back to a purer church.

Yet, as I binge-watched the first season in my basement, after weeks of watching real-life Vatican power politics in Rome, I could not help thinking that the Young Pope has nothing on the Old Pope.

Which is to say, the 40something American Pope Pius XIII (played by the British and youngish Jude Law, 44) may rule the Vatican as an awful authoritarian, boasting that he is a "politician far cannier" than the canniest cardinal, but the 80-year-old Pope Francis is the one conducting a political master class.

It is just one facet where I found The Young Pope - for all its over-the-top plot lines, Holy-See- as-a-Bjork-video imagery and sumptuousness typical of a Paolo Sorrentino production - had some resonance in the real-life Roman Catholic Church.

Armed with an old John Paul II Popener (a souvenir bottle opener) for spiritual refreshment during later episodes and getting back to a Vatican City state of mind as the new Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, I settled in for an eight-hour papal audience with a show that had its finale on Monday night.

Here are some moments in which the Technicolor paled in comparison with the real thing. A warning: spoilers ahead.

The Young Pope's garments come up short on thread count

The Young Pope, a traditionalist who, like Benedict XVI, clearly thinks the rich history of the church is reflected in its ornate raiment, does it up in Episode 5.

He even dresses to the song, Sexy And I Know It. But the damask curtains he wraps himself in are yards of fabric short of what it takes to make the cappa magna, the long train of billowing red silk preferred by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the conservative whom Pope Francis has made a habit out of diminishing. Cardinal Burke's taste for velvet gloves and extravagant brocades once reportedly prompted Vatican officials to request he "tone it down a bit".

Soccer is a religion in Italy and the Vatican is a very Italian institution

When Episode 7 opened with the portly and Machiavellian secretary of state, the No. 2 at the Vatican, watching a Naples soccer game in a Speedo-tight team outfit, I recalled how the last real-life secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, decorated his apartment with the black-and-white scarves of the Juventus soccer team. Bertone even spoke, seemingly in earnest, about starting a competitive Vatican squad.

In today's church, advocating inclusion may be more radical than conservative retrenchment

The plot of The Young Pope is basically one of subterfuge against a traditionalist pope, a mirror image of the dynamic at play in today's Vatican. But Law's young Lenny Belardo struck me as a political novice compared with the octogenarian who is in charge of the Roman Catholic Church.

For instance, in Episode 5, Law exclaims: "I am the Young Pope - I put no stock in consensus." He should. Pope Francis has wielded his enormous popularity as a weapon for his reform agenda and his critics inside the church see little of the benevolent Droopy Dog grandfather perceived by so much of the Catholic world.

Real-life critics of the real-life Pope whisper that his pontificate can be rigid and unforgiving. They point to how he asserted his power last month by ordering the ferreting out of Freemasons from the nearly 1,000-year-old Knights of Malta and then punished the apparent disobedience of the order's grand master by sacking him, the leader of a sovereign state.

And while Young Pius XIII may snarl, "Everything that is hidden from me is sooner or later revealed," Pope Francis already "knows all", according to the Reverend Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest close to the Pope.

When I asked Spadaro this month in Rome if Pope Francis knew about any conspiring and plotting against him, he said: "If the question is, 'Is the Pope aware of that which is happening?', the answer is 'yes.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'An audience with The Young Pope'. Print Edition | Subscribe