Could Pope Francis become the first ‘Eastern pope’?

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a 1968 Hollywood film about a fictional pontificate has captivated the attention of Church-watchers ever since. Based on Morris West’s novel of the same name, The Shoes of the Fisherman finds itself more relevant than ever because it seems that the silver screen has come alive on our computer and TV screens as we watch Pope Francis. Indeed many comparisons can be drawn between the film and the current pontificate.  

The film tells the story of an Eastern rite archbishop turned political prisoner of Soviet Russia. Kiril Lakota eventually gains his freedom as a product of undescribed negotiations between Russia and the Vatican. Lakota ends up in Rome and is created a cardinal — a reward of sorts for his years of persecution. And it isn’t long before Lakota is elected pope himself. What follows is the story of a papacy defined by its occupant’s experience in the oppressive “third world” and his desperate hope for world peace, equality, and justice. Defying all the expectations, Pope Kiril makes the papacy his own. Sound familiar?


If you’ve seen the film, it’s easy to understand why some say its script has come to life in the story of Pope Francis. But I wonder what would happen if Pope Francis brought to life an otherwise minor detail from the film.

As an homage to the fictional Pope Kiril’s Eastern background, he’s seen in the film wearing both the typical papal gear of the Latin variety, but also, rather uniquely, Eastern episcopal liturgical vesture made papal. Nothing like it had been seen before. It happened once in real papal history when Pope St. John Paul II wore vestments of the Syro-Malabar Eastern rite during a visit to India in 1986. And let’s not forget that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s first pallium was of ancient Eastern design.

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis has been very sensitive toward and respectful of the Eastern rites and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Recently he changed Church law to bring about greater harmony between the sacramental practices of East and West. Add that to the famous, historic meeting of Pope Francis with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba earlier this year — a papal first — Pope Francis may eventually earn himself the title of the first “Eastern Pope.”

A lesser-known fact of Pope Francis’ biography is that he was ordinary for the faithful of the Eastern Catholics in Argentina while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Adding to that his sensitivities and gestures toward the East, it’s interesting to ponder what it would be like if Pope Francis would ever don Eastern vestments and celebrate an Eastern liturgy. Or what if, in a pastoral visit to a predominantly Easter Christian country, Pope Francis might wear the clerical dress of an Eastern bishop in papal white? Of course he can do this as pope — the head of every rite in the Catholic Church. And such gestures would, no doubt, show his role as universal pastor in a clear and concrete way.

Is it a page out of the script of The Shoes of the Fisherman or, perhaps, could it be a page out of future history books describing the reunion of East and West? Who knows. But in a papacy filled with gestures and outreach, it would certainly be a photo-op worth creating.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.