In new Netflix series, Pope Francis insists old have lessons for the young

Though focused on aging, the documentary sheds light on his views on climate change, migration and polarization in the Catholic Church.

Illustration from the Netflix series “Stories of a Generation With Pope Francis.” Courtesy image

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — No one outdoes Pope Francis when it comes to staying on message. 

Since his first months as pope, when he urged the crowd at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro to engage in dialogue with the elderly, the pope has repeated his appeal in his public audiences, Masses and in his publications.

It’s there too in the first scene of a new documentary released on Netflix on Christmas Day, “Stories of a Generation With Pope Francis”: “For me today, it’s important for the future of humanity that young people talk to the old,” Francis says to the camera.

The pope’s vision is based on a passage from the biblical book of the Prophet Joel, which Francis sums up in the documentary: “The dreams of an older person are the richness of life, which they offer you,” the pope says.

The documentary, based on Francis’ 2018 book “Sharing the Wisdom of Time,” is divided into four hourlong episodes, each addressing a fundamental lesson to be learned through the experiences of the elderly: love, dreams, struggle and work.

The format for this multilingual, multicultural effort is simple: Director Simona Ercolani captures a series of conversations between men and women over 70 with people under 30. The filmmaker Martin Scorsese and primatologist Jane Goodall are two of the more recognizable elders, but most are everyday heroes who have overcome challenges despite staggering odds.

Francis’ own life is among the lives that are examined, and he offers insight into spirituality, climate change, the plight of migrants and refugees, and polarization in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the first episode, “Love,” Francis takes the viewer to his native country of Argentina. Before becoming pope, Francis — then Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was a provincial of the Jesuits in the country during the political unrest of the 1970s known as the “dirty war,” when agents of the ruling military junta kidnapped and killed supporters of the leftist opposition.

The 90-year-old Estela Barnes de Carlotto tells the story of losing her pregnant daughter, who was among those known as the “desaparecidos” or the disappeared. Many children were taken and raised by their parents’ killers.

After the loss of her daughter, Barnes continued to fight the regime by founding a movement of women who denounced the government while trying to reunite broken families.

Martin Scorsese and his daughter, Francesca, in the Netflix series “Stories of a Generation with Pope Francis." Photo courtesy of Netflix

Martin Scorsese and his daughter Francesca in the Netflix series “Stories of a Generation With Pope Francis.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Many of the contributors have some connection to the pontiff. Scorsese met Francis at the Vatican in 2016 at a screening of Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” about the life and martyrdom of Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan. In the “Love” episode, the documentary visits the director’s home, where he talks with his youngest daughter.

The story of an Italian ice cream maker, Vito Fiorino, 72, is among the most touching in the series. While sailing near the island of Lampedusa in 2013, Fiorino found over 200 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. He managed to save 47, whom he now regards as his children.

Lampedusa was also Francis’ first destination as pontiff, where he laid a wreath in the sea to commemorate the plight of migrants and refugees — another major focus of his pontificate. Another immigrant, Gisèle Assoud Sabbagh, 87, tells about uprooting her life twice as a refugee from Syria and then Lebanon in the third chapter of the series, “Struggle.” 

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The documentary shows the elderly not as static individuals, but as dynamic sources of strength and inspiration. “Old people need to dream, if not they fall into nostalgia,” the pope says, and while nostalgia might allow the elderly to relive the beautiful moments in their lives, without dreams they become “hardened.”

The notion is applied in the course of the documentary to those critics of Francis who want the church to remain unchanged. Francis praises tradition as a “struggle to keep the roots” but clarified that this “does not mean that we are traditionalists,” adding, “A static tradition is useless.” 

The final episode, “Work,” follows the story of a Vietnamese shoemaker, a Nigerian artist and fashion designer and a Mexican midwife who has helped bring more than 3,000 children into the world. The trio exemplifies for the pope the unbroken line weaving together the artistry, knowledge and suffering of people’s pasts with the optimism, energy and expectations of future generations.

“I love teaching other people. It’s like planting a seed,” says the 70-year-old Nigerian designer, Nike Okundaye, “and that seed will grow.”

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