New documentary chronicles ministry of papal preacher

Cardinal Raniero Catalamessa, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, is the subject of an 83-minute documentary film, “The Preacher to the Popes: Raniero Cantalamessa,” which will have its worldwide premier Dec. 18, 2021, at St. Patrick’s Theatre in Norfolk, Va., and via livestream at cantalamessamovie.com. (CNS photo/courtesy CMAX Media via The Catholic Virginian)

By Janna Reynolds

RICHMOND, Va. — Most Catholics probably know there are specific roles within the papal household that support the papacy.

Many may not be aware that the preacher to the papal household, also known as the apostolic preacher, is one of those official roles, a role established by Pope Paul IV in 1555.

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, is the longest serving person in that position. He was appointed by St. John Paul II in 1980 and was reappointed by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

The faithful around the world will soon be introduced to the cardinal in “The Preacher to the Popes: Raniero Cantalamessa,” a documentary that aims to foster authentic relationships among Christians of every tradition.

The worldwide premiere will be Dec. 18 at St. Patrick’s Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia. There will be an in-person audience for the film and it also can be viewed online at https://cantalamessamovie.com.

“He’s an orthodox charismatic, so he has this deep understanding of the roots of the church and church teaching and Scripture, but he’s also very in tune with the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Ashley Zahorian, director and producer of the film, told The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of publication of the Diocese of Richmond.

“So he’s very popular in a lot of circles, and he’s a very good, authentic Catholic,” she added. “He’s really popular among Protestants because they see what Catholicism should be.”

Zahorian first met Cardinal Cantalamessa in 2014 when he was the keynote speaker and she was giving a presentation on media evangelization at an Awakening the Domestic Church conference at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

The film’s executive producer, Deacon Darrell Wentworth, who serves at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Virginia Beach, worked with Zahorian to plan the conference. He had met then-Father Cantalamessa in 2012.

The deacon has been involved with ecumenism for the Diocese of Richmond since the early 2000s. He became a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 2010 and in 2014 was asked to represent North American leaders of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships — the organization that wanted to bring the preacher to the papal household to that conference in Virginia Beach.

In their ecumenical work, Deacon Wentworth and his colleagues sought a concept for a religious film that could “bring together Catholics, Pentecostals, charismatics and authentic Christians of every tradition around the core message of the Gospel.”

Cardinal Cantalamessa was the answer to Deacon Wentworth’s search.

“The preacher of the papal household is really the only person in the world that is commonly recognized as authentically authoritative in every Christian tradition,” he said. “Everybody loves this guy because he’s just a humble man who has a grounded, authentic understanding of patristics,” the study of the work of the early church fathers.

After the Awakening conference, Zahorian got then-Father Cantalamessa’s contact information and inquired about doing a documentary.

“He said that he had turned down EWTN before, but yes, he would let me do a documentary on him because of how we met each other and the trust level that we were coming from the same perspective,” she recalled.

“For a documentary, there’s a lot of research, a lot of finding out who to interview, interviewing them, and then taking the hundreds of hours of footage and finding what makes the cut for an 83-minute film,” Zahorian said.

Deacon Wentworth said his job as executive producer is “to connect the dots and introduce Ashley and her team of media people to the people who are friends with the pope, in evangelization theology, leaders of pontifical commissions.”

A challenge in producing the film was that work could only be done when the team had time and money available. The budget for the film is $250,000, some of which has yet to be raised.

Another test was COVID-19. As the pandemic made in-person meetings impossible for a time, some interviews had to be conducted over Zoom.

“I have very high standards in video production, so I had to get over that for the sake of the story,” Zahorian said.

When one of the team’s post-production workers got sick, others stepped up to help.

Cardinal Cantalamessa’s order was hesitant about the project because they were concerned it would be too celebratory of someone still living, and they wanted the filmmakers to consider waiting to finish it until after his death. That changed in late 2020 when Pope Francis announced the friar would be elevated to cardinal.

“We were given the blessing to move forward,” Zahorian said, “so we kicked back into high gear after that announcement.”

One of the things Zahorian said she admires most about Cardinal Cantalamessa is how he inspires everyone.

“You cannot look at him and not see joy, so somebody watching the film is going to leave inspired to do whatever it is God is calling them to do in their lives right now, and that Christianity is full of joy,” she said.

“When you watch the film, you’re going to see God moving in every one of the churches,” Deacon Wentworth noted. “That’s the key. The Holy Spirit is moving us all into deeper communion with one another because that’s what the Holy Spirit does.”

He sees the documentary as a tool for evangelization, which he defines as “the process of discovering who you are in Christ, and then helping others discover who they are in Christ.”

After the premiere in Norfolk, “The Preacher to the Popes” will be shown in limited screenings, with assistance from United in Christ, an international organization for Christian unity. Parishes, schools and other groups will be able to schedule screenings after the premiere.

“Ultimately, we want to encourage people to be watching these meaningful films and discussing them in small groups. So step one is see it, so that you know that you can vouch for it personally and see that it would fit for your community, and then schedule the time that you can share it with your broader community,” Zahorian said.

Following Pentecost, interested viewers will be able to stream the film on demand on CMAX.TV. It also will be shown on EWTN, Shalom, Catholic TV, CBN and Stremio for a period of time.

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