What The Young Pope Preached About Love

The first season of HBO’s Vatican dramedy portrayed a journey from amplifying suffering to easing it.

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

In the final moments of The Young Pope’s first season, the elusive Pope Pius XIII finally showed his face to the world for a sermon in Venice that addressed one question: “Who is God?”

This is a central question of religion, but it is not the central question of The Young Pope. Over 10 episodes, Paolo Sorrentino’s daring and hypnotic HBO series instead asked: Who are people? Why is anyone the way they are? Or more specifically in this show, and perhaps more urgently in this era: What drives someone who acts erratically and cruelly in a position of power? Why would someone use their charisma and influence to exclude and degrade? Are the most inscrutable people born or are they made?

The show’s answer is that they are made. Nurture, not nature, is destiny—but it can be tamed.

Lenny Belardo, the young pope, may or may not be a miracle worker chosen by God, but first he is a human caught up in his own history. The same can be said for the doting but unsparing Sister Mary, the grandiose Cardinal Spencer, the pedophile Archbishop Kurtwell, the timid Monsignor Gutierrez, and on down the list of faithful. A church is made up of leaders wrestling with their own pasts, but so is a congregation—it is the leaders’ jobs to overcome the pain that has shaped them so as to ease the pain that has shaped others.

Sister Mary dispensed that very wisdom in the first episode of the series, telling her de facto son Lenny that “your personal aches, your enormous sufferings, your terrible memories ... must take a back seat” for the good of the church’s one billion congregants. Lenny did not heed this advice, not at first. As Sorrentino then unspooled intrigue-ridden and hilarious plotlines about an insurgent pope, he also threaded in reveries about Lenny’s childhood, mostly centering on his parents having abandoned him. The pope himself constantly referred to his orphanhood in conversation.

All of this was not just biographical information. We were meant to understand that Lenny’s obsession with mystery, his hardline take on abortion, his angst towards faith, and his general disinterest in providing comfort for others all stemmed from his sad childhood. He wanted to make the people of the world feel like orphans so that they would ache for God as he ached for his parents.

Sorrentino’s psychoanalytical vision of character—the assurance that childhood inputs have symmetrical outputs in adulthood—came through most clearly in  the finale, a buffet of revelations about past traumas. Gutierrez revealed he’d been abused as a child. Mary’s parentlessness was openly discussed. And the monstrous Kurtwell tearfully recounted molestation at the age of 12—on the way to confessing that he in adulthood preyed on boys.

There was a moment when it seemed that Lenny might forgive Kurtwell based on his horrifying past. Instead he exiled him to Ketchikan, Alaska—the spot where the innocent Cardinal Ozolins had been grievously suffering thanks to Lenny’s earlier casual cruelty. Finally, the pope was acting not out of capriciousness but out of justice. Finally, he was saying that being a victim is no excuse for being a monster, and that the role of the church lies not in the perpetuation of the past but in the transcending of it.

How did he come to this revelation? The Young Pope’s ninth and tenth episodes read mysteriously, with many explicit references to Lenny having changed—even revising his intolerance against homosexuals in the clergy—but few clear explanations for why. One factor, though, must have been that his past had become a source of salvation rather than of suffering. Love letters he’d written long ago, squirreled away as blackmail material by Kurtwell, ended up boosting Lenny’s popularity when released to the world. This development brought to life a prophecy he once made about congregants returning in droves, but it did so through a display of affection, warmth, and availability of the sort that he longed spurned.

And so, the power of those positive attributes suddenly came to the fore. In the finale, a cardinal listed the pope’s various supernatural-seeming feats that could qualify him for sainthood. They were all about helping others. When meeting a group of third-graders touring the Vatican, Lenny made one of his typical out-of-nowhere efforts at intimidation, and the sight of kids bursting into tears seemed to genuinely disturb him. The reminder of his childhood misery, the specter of him causing pain by withholding love just as his parents did, felt like a turning point: Why terrorize rather than comfort?

Throughout, children have always seemed the key to Lenny’s spiritual development. In one shocking scene, he lovingly held a newborn and then accidentally dropped it—a sign of a complicated relationship with innocence and caring if there ever was one. Many of his most concrete papal actions were to protect kids: prosecuting Kurtwell, defeating the corrupt Sister Antonia, sending Mary to open more children’s charities.

Lenny’s final act of the season, his sermon in Venice, was an overture to the church’s children: its congregants. He held the speech in that particular city because that is where he believes his long-lost parents to be, and as he looked into the audience with a telescope, he even saw a couple who might have been his mother and father. But he had come not to find them but to say farewell to them, just as he recently said farewell to his father figure Cardinal Spencer and his mother figure Sister Mary. For he had located an alternate source of unconditional love in faith, and realized that his role is to be such a source for others.

His sermon recounted a saintly woman on her deathbed, peppered with existential questions by children: “Are we healthy or are we sick? Are we good or are we bad? Do we still have time or has it run out?” Replied the woman, “It doesn’t matter.” “Who is God?,”the kids asked. The answer: “God smiles.” The pope then asked the assembly to smile—a remarkable request from a pope who has spent so long scowling.

The very final moments of the season posed one more mystery as Lenny declared his faith to the audience and then doubled over in pain. As cardinals attended to him and his eyelids flickered, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the clouds. Was this Pope Pius XIII dying to be with God? Was he being struck with the Holy Spirit? The camera panned out and out and out until it encompassed the entire Earth. A possible takeaway: One person on the globe has conquered himself, so as to make way for the divine.