Pope Francis appears in an 83-minute Spanish-language documentary entitled “Amén. Francisco responde” (“The Pope Answers”) directed by Spaniards Jordi Évole and Màrius Sánchez, released on 5 April 2023 on the Disney+ streaming platform. The Pope is relaxed, smiling and joking, and in other moments very serious, moved and grieving. But he is always ready to answer the complex questions put to him by young people from all over the world.
The dialogue was filmed in June 2022 in Rome’s Pigneto district when the Pope was suffering from severe pain in his right knee. This is why he appears frail while walking, but not when answering the tough questions of the young people, all Spanish speakers between the ages of 20 and 25, and hailing from Spain, Senegal, Argentina, the United States, Peru, and Colombia. Although at first they seemed a bit anxious, after the Pope arrived they went from shyness to confidence, and sometimes to boldness, in asking frank questions about the role of women in the Church, feminism and abortion, bearing witness to faith and its loss, sexual identity, the drama of migration, and racism.
“I don’t have a salary”
Pope Francis himself breaks the ice, using a football metaphor saying “Centre ball, the game begins.” Immediately Víctor, who describes himself as agnostic, asks him if he receives a salary for his work and the Pope answers, “No, they don’t pay me! And when I need money to buy shoes or something else, I go and ask. I don’t have a salary, but that doesn't worry me, because I know they feed me for free.” He then tells the young people that his lifestyle is quite simple, “like that of a typical office worker,” and that for larger expenses he prefers not to burden the Holy See, but to ask others for help.
With a bit of irony, he explains that when he sees a social outreach organisation in need of financial help, he himself encourages them to ask him for resources, because he knows where to find them and who to turn to.
Going out to the peripheries
When the conversation turns to the issue of many Catholics leaving the Church, the Pope brings up one of his most recurring topics, the peripheries. “When there is no witness, the Church suffers, because it turns into a club of good people, who carry out their religious gestures, but do not have the courage to go out to the peripheries. For me this is fundamental. When you look at reality from the centre, without wanting to, you put up protective barriers that take you away from reality and you lose your sense of reality. If you want to see what reality is, go to the peripheries. You want to know what social injustice is? Go to the outskirts. And when I say periphery, I am not just talking about poverty, but about cultural, existential peripheries,” he points out.
Migration and Church reform
Medha, a girl born in the usa , whose parents left India in search of a better life for their family, then speaks, a testimony similar to that of Khadim, a young Senegalese Muslim with roots in Spain. Both speak about the racism they suffered as foreigners coming from far away.
The conversation then turns to the global issue of migration and the Pope takes the opportunity to denounce both the exploitation of people in the countries of origin and the lack of charity of those who do not welcome them. “This happens today, it happens at the borders of Europe, and sometimes with the complicity of some authorities who send them back. There are countries in Europe — I don’t want to name them so as not to create a diplomatic incident — that have small towns or villages that are almost empty, countries where there are only twenty old people and unfarmed fields. And these countries, which are experiencing a demographic winter, do not even welcome migrants,” the Pope said.
According to the Holy Father, behind all this is a type of colonialistic social conscience that favours exploitation and a culture of slavery, concealed by migration policies that do not seek to welcome, accompany, advocate, or even integrate migrants. But the young people point out to the Pope that the Church has collaborated with and gained from this colonialism in the past. And he replies that, while being ashamed of it, one must always accept one’s own history, and that this criterion has allowed him to cleanse the Vatican of the spiritual worldliness he has sometimes found, but that can be pervasive. “The reform of the Church must start from within, and the Church must always be reformed, always, because as cultures progress, the needs change.”
Bullying and abortion
Dora, a young evangelical woman from Ecuador, burst into tears as she told the Pope she had been bullied, and had developed such a deep sense of loneliness that she had contemplated suicide. The Pope consoled her, inviting her to cry freely, and when he sees her more calmed down he asks her what she does. Dora answers that she is a theatrical make-up artist, and the Pope brings a smile back to her face by saying, “I will call you so you can make me more beautiful.”
At that moment, a clap of thunder from a thunderstorm interrupts the conversation for a few moments, which turns to one of the documentary’s most intense moments. Milagros, from Argentina, introduces herself as a Catholic catechist and, at the same time, a proud pro-abortion activist. She places in the Pope’s hands a green scarf with the words, “Abortion: free, safe, and without cost” written on it. Francis accepts the gesture and allows a debate to take place between the women in the group — of whom only one says she is against induced abortion and in favour of the unconditional defence of the life that is about to be born.
The Pope then addresses the issue in both pastoral and biological terms. “I always say to priests that when they approach a person in this situation with a burden on their conscience, because the effect an abortion leaves on a woman is profound, that they please do not ask her too many questions and be merciful, as Jesus is [...]. But the problem of abortion must be seen scientifically and with a certain coldness. Any book on embryology teaches us that within a month of conception, the dna is already delineated and the organs are already defined. Therefore, it is not a cluster of cells coming together, but a human life.” Addressing the issue further, the Pope then asks rhetorically, “Is it licit to eliminate a human life in order to solve the matter? Or if I resort to a doctor [for an abortion]: is it licit to hire a hitman to eliminate a human life to solve it?”
The Pope appreciates the girls’ sensitivity to the crisis of a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, but insists that “it is good to call things by their name. It is one thing to accompany the person who has done it, quite another to justify the act,” he says clearly.
Rooting out abuse
The subject changes, but the tension rises when Juan, a Spaniard, who can hardly speak because of the anguish he feels, shares with the Pope that when he was eleven years old he was abused repeatedly by an Opus Dei numerary who worked as a teacher in his school. The man was convicted by the civil justice system, but with a reduced sentence.
The Pope was saddened, but especially surprised when the young man handed him a letter written by him. It was the Pope’s personal reply addressed to the young man’s father, in which he told him that the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ( cdf ) would deal with the case at the canonical level. The young man, who admitted that he was no longer a believer, explained to him that the cdf had ruled that the professor’s good name should be restored, absolving him of responsibility.
Pope Francis pledges to review the case, but the others challenge him for the Church’s generally negligent response to child abuse by its ministers. The Pope expresses his sorrow for these acts and details all that is being done to combat them, including lifting statutes of limitations.
Inclusion and non-binary persons
Another Spanish girl, Celia, introduces herself and explains that she is non-binary and Christian. “Do you know what a non-binary person is?” she asks the Pope. He answers yes, but she explains to him anyway that “a non-binary person is one who is neither man nor woman, or, at least, not all the time.” Then she wants to know if there is room in the Church for sexual and gender diversity.
The Pope responds by broadening the horizon to the ecclesial challenge of inclusion: “Every person is a child of God, every person. God does not reject anyone, God is Father. And I have no right to expel anyone from the Church. Not only that, my duty is always to welcome. The Church cannot close the door to anyone. To no one.”
Immediately afterwards, the Pope addresses criticism to those who, with the Bible as a reference, promote hate speech and justify the exclusion of the so-called lgbt movement from the Church community. Such people, he says, “are infiltrators who take advantage of the Church for their personal passions, for their personal narrowness. It is one of the corruptions of the Church.”
The beauty of sexuality vs pornography
The audiovisual montage shows the Holy Father who, although not always at ease, allows young people to express themselves freely, even when many of their positions contradict the Church’s teaching in various areas. For example, Alessandra, a Colombian, challenges the Pope starting from the activity that gives her a living: She presents herself as a creator of pornographic content that she distributes on social networks; a job that, according to her, has allowed her to value herself more and spend more time with her daughter.
Then María, the young Catholic who had previously spoken out against abortion, countered by saying how pornography is harmful both for those who produce it and for those who consume it. Starting from this, Pope Francis takes the floor again and recalls that those who use pornography debase themselves humanly: “Those who are addicted to pornography are like being addicted to a drug that keeps them at a level that does not let them grow,” he explains.
María’s countercultural Christian witness
The documentary closes with the contrasting experiences of two women within the Church: one nourished and blessed by faith; the other hurting and wounded to the core.
María expresses once again, without hesitation, her Catholic faith and her belonging to the Church, of which she is proud. Sometimes in a broken voice, in the face of the stares of the other nine young people who constantly disagreed with her throughout the conversation, María explains how her relationship with Christ has given meaning to her life. The Pope listens to her attentively, and in expressing admiration warns her that her path will be difficult: “The testimony of faith that you give touches my heart, because it takes courage to say what you are saying in this encounter. Thank you for your witness. [...] I do not want to frighten you, but gather your strength and prepare to be challenged. Continue to do these things well, but when a trial comes, do not be afraid, because even in the moment of darkness the Lord is there, hidden,” is the advice the Pope offers. María’s experience is contrasted, however, by the estrangement of Lucía, a young Peruvian woman who lost her faith in Christ after years of psychological abuse while trying to serve others as a member of a religious community. She explains to the Pope that she is happier now that she is neither a Catholic nor a believer. Pope Francis does not try to convince her otherwise. In fact, he explains to her that very often true courage consists in abandoning what is harming us. It is understandable to go back from where one started to seek the humanity of one’s roots, the Pope tells her with a paternal gaze that brings a smile to her face.
This concludes the conversation and is followed by the Holy Father’s thanks for the shared experience. Acknowledging the differences of thought and opinion expressed in the dialogue, Pope Francis emphasises that this is the way of the Church, that is, in diversity all are united, all are brothers and sisters, a human fraternity that cannot be called into question.
By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat