Bernardo M. Villegas
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Profiles of Two Saintly Pontiffs (Part 1)

          Like many other viewers of the Netflix film, The Two Popes, I shared the initial good impression of a former Swiss guard as he began watching the much discussed film.  What struck him was the careful reconstruction of the Vatican, having served Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for eight long years.  What struck me was the impressive cast of actors, led by Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis).  In fact, their acting was so good that the two have been nominated as best actor and best supporting actor in practically all possible annual film awards, such as the Academy Award, British Academy Film Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Golden Globe Award and Satellite Awards.  The script writer, Anthony McClarten (who adapted the film from his own 2017 play “The Pope”), has been nominated for best adapted screenplay for the Academy Awards, British Academy Film Awards,  Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Hollywood Film Awards, and the Satellite Awards.  The admirable way the humanity of the Popes was presented was very evident from the very first scene introducing the film:  Pope Francis trying to personally book a flight from Rome to Lampedusa by calling a number and being suspected of being an impostor.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was about to view a technically excellent offering of Netflix.

         Like the former Swiss guard whose name is Gregoire Piller, however, a few minutes into this technically excellent production, my good impression started to waiver.  Quoting Mr. Piller in a letter he sent to a friend: “I was surprised and sorry to see a Benedict XVI presented as greedy, mean, petty, driven by an uncontrollable thirst for power.  In the depths of my heart, I thought: but this is not the Pope I met and served!  In these days when reading the journalistic reports on the story of the book written by Cardinal Sarah, I felt the same feeling and the same sorrow:  the press presents us with a Benedict XVI who does not exist.  Those who sell us are real buffoons as if journalists were describing the Pope Benedict of film fiction and not the real one.”

         Before I proceed to quote from someone who had an intimate knowledge of the real character of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, let me first share with the reader what I discovered from a google search of the person of Gregoire Piller.  He was born in Fribourg, a town in Switzerland.  At the age of 21, in November 2005, he became a Swiss Guard in the Vatican City State until the 28th of February of 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI renounced the ministry of Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter.  During his eight years of service as a Swiss guard, he had numerous first-hand experiences with Pope Benedict, considering that he became a Swiss guard just six months after Pope Benedict began his pontificate, remaining there until the end.  Gregoire spent many Christmases and Easters with Pope Benedict.  In 2010, a friend of Gregoire, Kevin Stephan, was baptized by Pope Benedict XVI with the Swiss guard acting as the godfather.  During those eight years, Gregoire spent many holidays together with Pope Benedict in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo about 40 kilometers form the Vatican.

         After leaving the Vatican, Gregoire decided to do social work for the underprivileged in Kenya where he is based at Strathmore University, which happens to be an African university with which my own University of Asia and the Pacific in the Philippines has very close ties.    He is working with the corporate development department of Strathmore University where he is involved in community projects such as a primary school of girls, a hospital being supported by the University’s community outreach program and other pro-poor projects.  He himself is running a non-profit foundation called Diomira Foundation, inspired by an ancestor of his from the eighteenth century, the Venerable Maria Diomira, to whom his family had a great devotion.  He decided to start the Foundation for the care of children, women and other less privileged members of society to perpetuate the memory of the Venerable Maria Diomira.  (To be continued).