HABEMUS PAPAM -- we have a pope!!  Well, not yet.  But we do have a film titled Habemus Papam and quite the film it is.

Films about the papacy and the cardinalate are many and their quality uneven.  The seemingly endless fascination with papal venality, carnality, in fact everything other than holiness, is easily fed by Jeremey Irons, the villainous but quite able, Alexander VI (The Borgias).  And Peter O'Toole's over-the-top portrayal of Pope Paul III in The Tudors ranks as one of the more scurrilous butcherings of history in a long time.

Rolf Hockhhuth's drama about Pope Pius XII , the Nazis and the Jews called variously The Representative or The Deputy and Costas-Gavras's film based on the play, Amen, were hardly sympathetic treatments of the papacy of Eugenio Pacelli.

Still, the papacy has not been without more benign and sympathetic treatment. The Shoes of the Fisherman by Australian Catholic novelist Morris L West was the first of his 4-novel exploration around the office of Peter, the politics sacred and secular of the day, and the sheer humanity and often prophetic witness of his fictional popes. 

Michael Anderson's film version of Shoes was both a critical and popular success.  Anthony Quinn was Pope Kiril I and Oscar Werner the brilliant and tortured Jesuit Jean Telemond modeled on the evolutionist Pierre-Marie Teilhard de Chardin.

One of the most positive if quirky and unconventional "papal" novels is Hadrian the Seventh by the Catholic convert writer of the fin-de-siecle in England, Frederick William Rolfe or Baron Corvo.  Part of an engaging though utterly eccentric autobiographical tetralogy, Rolfe's fictional persona is plucked from obscurity, ordained, consecrated and enthroned in lightening time.  He takes the name of Hadrian VII because the last English pontiff was Adrian VI.

Dramatist Peter Luke took the novel and transformed it into a play that enjoyed a success Rolfe would have envied. A lush and expensive production, Alec McCowen and Hume Cronyn played the lead in various productions and it was a highlight of the Stratford, Ontario season when performed there. The pope's assassination is just one of the shockers.

Popes and cardinals have figured in other fictional and cinematic works as well including Henry Morton Robinson's The Cardinal (with a film version by Otto Preminger), Ignazio Silone's A Story of a Humble Christian, about a pope who resigned in the Middle Ages (Pope St. Celestine V), and Anthony Burgess's imaginative riff on papal canonizations in Earthly Powers -- a work of tantalizing irreverence that could only have been written by a cradle Catholic.

But Habemus Papam is different in kind from all of the above. More tomorrow.

Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB