AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Inside the Vatican is a two-part documentary exploring the epicentre of the Catholic Church and the home of the Pope in Rome. It follows the lives and faith of the women and men who live, work and pray inside the world’s smallest sovereign state – Vatican City.

The Greatest Show

Episode one starts with a tour of the papal palace with Archbishop Paul Gallagher. The story of Catholicism told through the eyes of the ageing white men controlling the Vatican is not all that appealing, but actually this documentary quickly gets into the diversity and depth of Catholicism; a global religion of 1.3 billion adherents.

Episode one focuses on the preparations taking place in Vatican City leading up to Easter Sunday, from the rehearsals of the Sistine Chapel Choir to the security precautions and plans made by police ahead of a Mass attended by 80,000 people. It provides a unique window into the lives of the 2,600 employees of the Vatican.

I found the title: The Greatest Show on Earth rather demeaning, but notwithstanding this, it’s a warm and positive depiction of Christianity, seen through the lens of the Catholic Church.

Alongside a solid factual picture, we get glimpses into personal lives. One particularly interesting moment is when soloist Mark Spyropoulos admits that, even while singing “I believe in one God” in St Peter’s Basilica, he experiences doubt in his faith.

But probably the most profound footage is that of Pope Francis’ visit to Regina Coeli prison on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of the inmates there. One convict, Ali Bahaze, describes his surprise when he realises that the Holy Father is going to be doing the washing, not the other way around.

As the 82-year-old head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, in his pristine white cassock, kneels to wash and kiss the feet of twelve criminals, the viewer is reminded of the love and compassion of Christ; of Jesus’ call to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13 1-17).  

Cleaning the Sphinx

Episode 2: Cleaning the Sphinx, shifts focus to the reforms of Pope Francis, namely his appointment to the College of Cardinals bishops from the global south rather than the traditional western heartlands.

We witness bishops from the “peripheries” – including Iraq, Madagascar and Pakistan – bestowed with the power to elect a new Pope.

It also follows Fr Hans Zollner, a psychologist and one of the leading experts on sexual abuse working in the Catholic Church. Fr Zollner serves on the Pope’s special commission for the protection of minors and trains graduates in child protection.

After the glowing portrayal of Catholicism in episode one, I was pleased to see that the BBC didn’t shy away from exploring the Church’s darker side, but even in its depiction of the sexual abuse crisis, the BBC has been fair. It explains the scandals that have rocked dioceses across the world, but chooses to focus on the characters striving for change.

Overall this is an enjoyable documentary that provides an overview of Francis’ pontificate and of the challenges and tensions within the Catholic Church.

With episode one so focused on Easter, the BBC seems to have missed a trick with its scheduling, but other than that, Inside the Vatican gets the thumbs up from me.

Episode one of Inside the Vatican will be shown on BBC Two at 9pm tonight, 20 September, and episode two next Friday, 27 September.

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