What Does the Young Pope Really Want? (Commentary)

Pope Pius XIII has kept his motivations hidden for the most part, but his plan is starting to become clear

Last Updated: January 22, 2017 @ 8:03 PM

(There are spoilers ahead for HBO’s “The Young Pope” through its Jan. 22 episode.)

We’re several episodes into “The Young Pope,” and you’ll be forgiven for being confused about just what the hell is going on inside the head of Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law).

He is still, to both the characters on the show and the audience, an enigma. He’s acting very strangely, both in how he’s treated the other residents of the Vatican and the rest of the faithful. And his motivations are far from clear.

But the third episode did shed a little bit of light on those motivations. The Young Pope, after a bit of probing, has decided to become honest with two people, and it’s through his interactions with them, as well as his argument with Voiello (Sylvio Orlando) in this episode, that we start to see why Pope Pius XIII is who he is.

There are two facets to his personality that we need to understand. The first, and most important, is that he is merely human like everyone else. Lenny Belardo may have become the Pope, but he’s still also Lenny Belardo.

And Lenny Belardo, it turns out, is not quite the man of staunch faith everyone would expect from a young cardinal. He, like any adherent to any religion, has his crises of faith. But beyond that there is a meaningful lack of conviction in Lenny’s beliefs.

On Sunday he told Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Camara) — one of those two people, along with Don Tomasso (Marcello Romolo), that the Young Pope speaks frankly with — that he didn’t become a priest because he felt the call from God Almighty, but rather because he was an orphan raised in a Catholic orphanage and the priesthood just felt like his best option, career-wise. There’s no miraculous story of inspiration in Lenny’s past, just practicality. He doesn’t even really know if he believes all that God stuff.

And now he’s the Pope! The guy who became a priest just because it felt like the default option is now leading the entire church and all its billion-plus followers. It makes no sense, and he knows he’s not a good choice for it. All of those internal struggles he’s had with his faith, or lack thereof, are driving him extra crazy. And he’s mad because he doesn’t know why any of this is happening.

Which brings us to the second facet of Pope Pius XIII that we have to understand: his vindictiveness. And we finally get the reason for that thanks to his argument with Voiello.

In that argument, Pius confronts Voiello and demands to know why he was chosen to be Pope. He’s pissed, straight up, that he doesn’t understand the sequence of events that led to his selection.

Despite what he says in his monologue to open the episode about the seemingly divine circumstances surrounding the vote — he describes his angry prayer at the Conclave that he be chosen and not any of these others present, before votes inexplicably start going his way — Pius knows there’s an earthly explanation. And he knows Voiello has answers.

Voiello is reluctant to give those answers up, as we saw when he credited divine inspiration for the vote in an earlier conversation with Cardinal Spencer. But Pius won’t have that garbage. He wants to know the truth, and he gets it.

That truth is that the vote swung for Lenny Belardo as a moderate compromise between the conservative and progressive factions among the Cardinals. Of course it wasn’t the breath of the Holy Spirit or whatever. It was politics.

It’s always politics, and Pius already knew that. He just didn’t know the specifics. That he understood his rise to the papacy was due to some kind of maneuverings behind the scenes was why he’d been so intent on upending the order of things in the Vatican — he was bitter that he had been left out of those maneuverings, and he knows he had been left out because those responsible thought they could make him their papal puppet.

And the Young Pope simply is not going to have that.

The irony, now, is that those in the Vatican who by all appearances are truly faithful — as in those who aren’t interested in political machinations — seem to be behind Pius. It’s not a coincidence that he chose Don Tomasso and Gutierrez to be his confidantes. Those two aren’t political. And, even better, they’re abused by those political machinations. Even in this episode we see Voiello attempt to blackmail Gutierrez, which serves only to strengthen his loyalty to this erratic new pope.

“Voiello is a politician,” Gutierrez says when Pius admits he considers just letting Voiello run things. “You are the Pope.”

It’s true that, in a different way, Pius himself is using those two men politically as well, just in a different direction. But that direction is surely more palatable to them after lifetimes of dealing with the Vatican Cardinals.

What Pope Pius XIII represents is, based on what we have seen so far, is an effort to upend the way things are done in the church in order to, ultimately, root out the insincerity of its inner workings. The Young Pope is way over that fakeness.