St. John’s grad who wrote and directed film about pope says Francis’ far-ranging influence rests on his walk-the-talk, back-to-basics approach to Gospel

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Sebastian Gomes shakes hands with Pope Francis during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican in October 2014. L’Osservatore Romano

Sebastian Gomes, a native of Perth, Ontario, and a 2011 graduate of the St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, returned to his alma mater for a March 11 screening and discussion of “The Francis Effect,” a documentary detailing the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Gomes, a producer and correspondent for Salt and Light Media, wrote and produced the film. Visitor reporter Kristi Anderson interviewed him by email just before his arrival in Minnesota. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How does this film illustrate its title?

Gomes: We chose “The Francis Effect” for the title of the film quite intentionally. First, everyone was using the phrase in casual conversation at the time, so we could connect people to the film right away. Second — and more important — it was the secular news that coined the phrase. This was a powerful testament to the influence of the pope beyond the walls of the Catholic Church.

The film itself takes a critical and in-depth look at how Francis is rapidly changing the face of modern Catholicism. His effect is undeniable and can be felt by every human being the world over. We chose to focus on the major themes developing in his ministry, like the way he is communicating, his outreach to the peripheries and his reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy. Collectively, they paint a bigger picture of the “Francis effect.”

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Cover art for “The Francis Effect” on DVD.

Q: What are some of the actions of Pope Francis that have led to “The Francis Effect?”

Gomes: Ironically, some of the most jarring changes we see are the result of seemingly insignificant decisions he’s made, things like living in the Vatican guesthouse, wearing black shoes and dressing simply, carrying his own briefcase, preventing people from kissing his hand or ring. Though symbolic, these are not the deepest “effects” that people feel.

His emphasis on open, honest dialogue within the church is ground-breaking, because no pope has been able to accomplish that in modern history. His pastoral (as opposed to purely theological) approach to complex situations, and informed by a Latin

American perspective, is radically different from the traditional Eurocentric perspective associated with the Vatican for most of its history. Apply that to the decisions he makes: reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, appointing cardinals from all over the world, visiting countries affected by violence, persecution and natural disasters, etc.

On an individual level, he has inspired many Catholics and non-Catholics with his message of mercy, tenderness and joy. These are so badly needed around the world today, and he is able to communicate them effectively because of his authenticity. He walks the talk, unlike so many world leaders.

Q: Do you think it is changing the way Catholics are thinking about and living out their faith?

Gomes: Pope Francis is bringing us back to first-century Palestine, to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Many, many people have told me that they see in Pope Francis what they would expect to see in Jesus if he were walking the earth today. That is an incredible proclamation! Pope Francis does so well what Jesus also did: He affirms and challenges at the same time. You can’t help but feel more dignified as a human being by his words and gestures, and yet he calls everyone to a higher standard of love of God and neighbor.

What this has done is forced Catholics to go back to the basics, the fundamentals of the Gospel and think about how they should be lived today. Pope Francis doesn’t simply tell us how to do that — he shows us. No Catholic can be exempt from this penetrating reflection.

Q: Do you feel he has had an impact beyond the Catholic population? If so, how?

Gomes: There is no question about this. For the film, I interviewed a number of media personalities, including CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley.

He is Methodist but is amazed and inspired by Pope Francis. In our interview, he said that with Pope Francis “the church isn’t just speaking, the church is also listening,” and that “When you have that stance of wanting to listen to opposing views and find places where dialogue can occur, that is the antidote to so much of what poisons politics in the world today. It’s exactly what the world needs.”

This is a good example of Francis’ impact beyond the Catholic Church. Around the world non-Catholics see the pope as a beacon for dialogue, an utterly unique and credible voice for building up the human family. When non-Catholics recognize this, something big is happening.

Q: Has Pope Francis or the making of this movie had an effect on your faith life as well?

Gomes: I’ve met Pope Francis on a number of occasions, and he is a truly extraordinary man: humble, simple, compassionate, intelligent, sincere, fun and very astute. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Through words and actions he has reconnected us with the core of the Gospel: mercy and love. No one is unaffected by the bare message of the Gospel staring them in the face.

As I said, it’s both affirming and challenging at the same time. For me, quite simply, he makes me want to be a better Christian. Despite all my weaknesses and sinfulness, I want to be closer to Jesus because I see in Pope Francis the real joy of the Gospel and the potential of the Catholic Church to affect good in the world.

Q: How can others see this film?

Gomes: The film is airing right now on ABC affiliate stations, including in Minnesota, until just after Easter, (Check for air times with your local ABC station).

You can also purchase the DVD from our online store (www.saltandlighttv.org/store) or call 1-888-302-7181. The DVD is $25 plus shipping and handling and comes with the film, trailers, a 24-page study guide and all of the extended interviews from the film (more than six hours of bonus material). It’s a great tool for teachers and pastoral ministers, study groups, etc.

The film is also available on Vimeo on Demand to buy or rent. Visit https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thefranciseffect.