TV review: Inside the Vatican, and State of the Union

27 September 2019

BBC/Oxford Film And Television/© Governatorato dello S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei/Jon Sayers

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States

AS WE prepare to turn our backs on Roman Catholic Europe, the BBC, hotbed of ultramontane liberalism, rubs our faces in all that we are going to miss with its sumptuous two-part documentary Inside the Vatican (BBC2, Fridays). Every head server in the land, every faithful sacristan spending a faithful lifetime starching the small linens, will swoon in envious delight at this revelation of How It Ought To Be Done.

It sets to be a truly balanced account: for every lingering gaze on the unequalled Baroque splendours of marble and statuary, we see the rough-sleepers, welcomed by the Pope, as they set up their sleeping bags in Bernini’s Piazza; the Pope’s annual address to the ambassadors — one of the few places and occasions in the year when they still turn out in full diplomatic dress — is followed by the feeding of homeless refugees.

The Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher, essentially the Pope’s foreign minister, genially demonstrated how, despite the palatial grandeur of his office and private apartment, the web of Roman Catholic international relations sought to place gospel values at the heart of its political influence.

We saw Pope Francis respond with love to the desperately sick, and the excitement and joy of those who simply received his blessing, or even his smile, and saw evidence of his determination to open key Vatican posts to women.

This is a State where all the employees pause at noon, come out of their offices, and recite the Angelus. The army of support staff, craftsmen, gardeners, and secretariat spoke of their pride in the vocation of serving the Holy Father. It was all glorious and beautiful. But the over-reverential commentary gets a few crucial elements badly wrong. Surely St Peter’s prepares to “celebrate” Easter, not “stage” it, as though it were some performance to be witnessed. And, above all, a key sense of context is missing. Easter is not the most important festival in the year for the world’s Roman Catholics: it is central to the lives and faith of all Christians.

What, I wonder, must such a Rome-centred statement sound like to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, steadfastly keeping the faith despite centuries of persecution? Where is any understanding of ecumenical realities? Most of us are delighted to look to Rome for many aspects of Christian leadership and example, but some reciprocal acknowledgment would strengthen, not undermine, her primacy.

State Of The Union (BBC2, Sundays) is as remarkable a comedy drama as any I can remember. In each ten-minute episode, we see Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd) meeting in the pub before their next session of marriage counselling. He withdrew from conjugal relations; she has had a brief affair: can their relationship be repaired?

Nick Hornby’s script is wonderfully perceptive; their acting is as subtle, comic, and moving as can be imagined. Bravo!

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