A liberal arts education combined with a staunch Catholic identity relies on the past to move towards the future. Tradition is graphed on the heart of UD and its mission.
But what happens when a pursuit of tradition goes wrong? What happens when, in an attempt to discover the truth and stick by its principles, one gets led astray onto a dark path and cannot find his way back? Such is the case in the documentary film “Pope Michael.”
The documentary focuses on the life of David Bawden, an American and native to Kansas who, in 1990, was elected by several individuals as the new pope, believing that, among other things, the Second Vatican Council was a complete departure from the true Catholic faith and the papacy had been usurped by hostile forces — an idea known as sedevacantism.
Taking the name Pope Michael, Bawden soon created a tiny movement from his mother Tickie’s house, where he creates video lectures and addresses them to online followers. Flash forward to August 2008, where the documentary tells the story of Bawden’s training of a new seminarian named Phil over a 14 month period that goes into October 2009.
The documentary particularly focuses on the daily tasks that Bawden engages in while also diving into his backstory and mindset — the effects of the Second Vatican Council on Bawden and his family, their decision to leave the “Novus Ordo” Mass and join the Society of Saint Pius X — only to eventually leave them as well, culminating in the “election” of Bawden as the first Pope Michael.
The documentary itself is both interesting and engaging: It focuses on a topic that is not often covered in mainstream Christian media, and one that is also relevant to the conservative Catholic environment that is UD.
For a subject as strange and tense as sedevacantism and the post-Vatican II Church, the cinematography is quite fitting. Rather than have a background narrator, the only people that speak are those whom the documentary itself is about: Bawden, his mother and Phil, and their attempt to get the word out about the movement to save and maintain what they believe to be the true Catholic Church. Because of this, the viewer can get a greater insight into what the interviewees believe — it’s just their words for the viewer to ponder. This is further aided by the lack of dramatic or special effects; it is just the footage in full, detailing the day to day affairs that shape the church of Pope Michael.
What struck me most about the documentary was how candidly it showed Bawden and his followers — no dramatization, nor surprise cuts, just the raw footage of their struggle to get a fledgling religious movement off the ground. There are certainly justifiable grounds to label Bawden’s movement as a cult, but it is definitely not how one would normally think of a cult.
Bawden is not some con man hoping to extort his gullible followers for financial gain. He sincerely believes in what he is doing, no matter what the cost is to him. At one point he bluntly admits that he will most likely never have a large following or have comfortable conditions, but is willing to pay that price for what he believes to be his divine mission as the true pope of the real Catholic Church. He’s also neither manipulative nor mysterious in his operations. He puts his daily workings on full display throughout the film, and even gives two presentations at two universities where he takes questions from the audience.
There is certainly much to criticize about modern day Catholicism, and some of the issues that Bawden and his followers have with the way the Church is currently run are valid. But ultimately, this documentary shows a group of highly confused individuals who, in the midst of their zeal and longing for a bygone dream, have been steered entirely off course.
While I certainly don’t think anyone at UD is at risk of declaring themselves the new pope, I do believe that there is a tendency to get our heads too high into the clouds, wishing to bring back some idealized age of Catholic traditionalism and piety. To me, this is part of the challenge. How do we maintain our traditions in a pragmatic way without slipping too far into idealism? We cannot return to a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, but we can strive to increase our religious piety by relying upon the wisdom of those who came before us and utilizing them in a way to meet the challenges of the current era.
“Pope Michael” provides some truly invaluable insight into how our community can go about achieving this. I don’t expect to be wrong for not following a guy playing make-believe in his mom’s attic. Regardless, we must keep the flame of the tradition alive, but not lose our souls in doing so.