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Mary Shows Up

At the heart of The Young Pope is the repression of the feminine divine
Art for Mary Shows Up.

“I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em

But who the fuck prayin for me?”

—Kendrick Lamar


Jesus might appear on a piece of toast from time to time, but it’s the Virgin Mary who shows up. She shows up in blinding light to heal and be present, whispering to the old, the infirm, the children, the women, and all the others the Church has forgotten. The Virgin Mary is the one who makes a habit of coming down to earth.

If you’re a believer, you might wonder from time to time why she’s the one we see, whether this Sacred Vessel, this Queen of Heaven, this Mother of Christ is sent as a messenger or whether she sneaks out behind God’s back. If you’re not a believer, you might wonder why she’s the one we hallucinate, why our need for her is so great that our brains create her for us.

The Virgin Mary has always been a problem for the Church. The Church has long asked the people not to worship Mary as an earth goddess. Meanwhile, the people have always worshiped her as an earth goddess, and so deals have been struck: OK, you can worship her, but she’s definitely not a goddess. We’ll call her Queen of the Heavens, as Pope Pius XII did in the 1950s. Queen, not goddess. Nothing divine, let’s make that clear. But the more they try to repress her, and the people’s need for her, the more she erupts through in visions and hallucinations.

Our insistence on seeing Mary, on worshiping Mary, on praying to Mary implies that we need her. It also implies that the followers of patriarchal religions might be carrying around some psychological damage from being asked to see masculinity alone as divine—from being asked to accept a secondary position for feminine divinity, or to deny its existence altogether.

Included in the walking wounded is Pope Pius XIII, the fictional holy father played by Jude Law in Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope. The title is a bit of a tease, the assumption being that since the young are naturally liberal reformers, a young pope will be one who seizes hold of a reluctant Church and yanks it into a brand new age. Yet we forget that the young are also the most fanatical, and indeed this pope, with the wonderfully absurd name of Lenny Belardo, declares in his address to the cardinals, “Fanaticism is love.” He wants to purge the church of homosexuals, make abortion an unforgivable sin, begin excommunication proceedings, and basically drag the church backward in time, to an era in which the church actually had control over its believers.

A Mary figure is present in almost every scene, silent and made of stone.

“What have we forgotten?” Pope Pius XIII intones at the heavens, barks at his cardinals, and asks imploringly into his mirror. “What have we forgotten?” He decides, “We have forgotten God.” It’s the wrong answer, but some things are buried deep. He’s terrified of the feminine: rather than drink a glass of wine or whiskey (as alcohol is a feminine spirit), he smokes endlessly, so a little white phallus always dangles from his lips. Presented with a bowl of fruit, he selects the banana.

All of the feminine spirits are kept safely entombed. A Mary figure is present in almost every scene, silent and made of stone, haunting the background of the entire series. In the pope’s office is the Venus of Willendorf, contained behind glass, and every man’s eyes are inevitably drawn to her mysterious power—except for Lenny’s. When visions of the Virgin Mary appear among a flock of sheep, the stigmatic shepherd who sees them, possibly a living saint, is intimidated into hiding.

In Celtic Queen Maeve and Addiction (2001), Sylvia Brinton Perera writes about the wounds inflicted by religions that are based not only on masculine divinity, but also on the absence of femininity. The degradation of sacred femininity has a tendency to trickle down: Aphrodite becomes a plastic-surgery-enhanced, tits-out tart; hag goddesses like Ceridwen and Baba Yaga become repellent witches; the spiritual ecstasy brought by Maeve becomes a drunken stupor; and even Mary, our fertility goddess, becomes sterile, the soul and mind cut off from the body and the sacrament of sex. So we search for halfhearted substitutes, looking for the spirit in spirits and drugs, elevating human love and marriage to religious levels, as if to find a romantic partner is to enter the kingdom of heaven.

From Maeve in Celtic religions, to Hekate in Greco-Roman, to the Holy Spirit in Christian traditions, the sacred feminine is what rules over our transitions. (While many would insist the Holy Spirit is masculine, Jesus refers to her in apocryphal gospels as “my Mother,” and many theologians believe she fulfills traditionally divinely feminine aspects.) Without the feminine spirit to guide us, we remain stuck, like Lenny, in the angry, selfish mode of the child. Perera writes, “The individual cannot escape the rigors of personal development nor attempt to leap from pre-ego states of infantile omnipotence to regency as is often attempted today.”

The degradation of sacred femininity has a tendency to trickle down.

When Lenny struggles to transition into regency, despite being elected to the role of the Holy Father, he puts the blame on his parents, who abandoned him at a Catholic orphanage. Yet he is envious of those who have been visited by the feminine, asking everyone he comes across to tell him the story of how they were called, and what it felt like to be visited by the Holy Spirit and transition into their purpose. He himself had no such calling; instead, he has clawed his way to the top of the Catholic hierarchy with a purely masculine sense of ambition.

And at the top of that hierarchy he behaves like a thunder god, like Yahweh, inspiring fear and anger rather than love. “I am the Lord omnipotent,” he tells a priest. He threatens disproportionate responses to challenges to his authority, telling an order of monks who threaten to schism, “I am ready to wage a war without end against you,” much like Yahweh wiping a city off the earth for offending his sensibilities. The challenge is that Lenny is a saint, capable of great acts of healing, but he withholds this ability because he is not rewarded for his acts by god with what he wants the most: his parents. He can heal, but cannot be healed. He can forgive, but he cannot be forgiven. He can convert others, but he himself cannot be converted. And this has made him angry. It has made him a tyrant.

Pope Pius XII, also known as the pope who negotiated with Nazis and fascists, granted sainthood to a young girl, Maria Goretti, who was murdered by a man because she refused to sleep with him. While these saints find followers because they endure with grace and dignity the things many of us face—in this case, violence and death for refusing a man’s sexual advances—she was also a convenient saint for a pope who wanted to keep women in their place. It was the eleven-year-old’s “choice” to keep her virginity instead of her life that most excited the pope. Stay pure, girls, was his message, no matter what the cost.

It was the eleven-year-old’s “choice” to keep her virginity instead of her life that most excited the pope.

In Episode 7 of The Young Pope, Lenny/Pope Pius XIII starts to have visions of another dead young girl up for canonization, the fictional Juana Fernandez. She first appears to the viewers—and since Lenny is having visions of her, perhaps to him, too—seated under the Black Madonna. She is everything Lenny is not. A young girl, sick with leukemia, she calms the other sick children at the hospital and makes them laugh with fairy tales she makes up about the Madonna, and some of the children, after hearing her stories, are cured from terminal diseases. She can only heal others; she cannot heal herself. Yet she bestows her powers freely, with no resentment or anger or fear of death.

The Young Pope is many things—a look at the politics of the Vatican, a portrait of a religion after it has lost total control over its followers, a character study of a man in power—but as with so many of our pious tales, at its core is the all-important but undervalued sin that eventually must out: the toxic degradation of the feminine, and the suffering that this degradation inflicts on the Church and its believers. In the final episode of the season, Lenny, made vulnerable by the murder of his friend, the loss of his, uh, pet kangaroo, the death of his spiritual father, and the stories and visions of Juana, finally allows himself to move away from Yahweh. In an address to his followers, he had warned them, threateningly, that “the pain of liberation [from God] is unbelievable, sharp enough to kill.” And now Lenny, allowing himself to be liberated from the masculine, suffers a tremendous pain in his chest and looks up, where Mary has appeared in the clouds.

“What have we forgotten?” Look up, there she is.