Popes’ preacher subject of local producers’ film

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the subject of an 83-minute documentary film, "The Preacher to the Popes: Raniero Cantalamessa," which aims to foster authentic unity among Christians. The global premier will take place on Saturday, Dec. 18, 10 a.m., at St. Patrick Theatre, Norfolk, and via livestream at cantalamessamovie.com. (Photo courtesy of CMAX Media)

Documentary to have worldwide premier in Norfolk, Dec. 18


Most Catholics probably know that 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.

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the longest serving person in that position. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and was reappointed by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. The position was established by Pope Paul IV in 1555.

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

‘Authentic Catholic’

“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,” said Ashley Zahorian, director and producer of the film. “So he’s very popular in a lot of circles, and he’s a very good, authentic Catholic. Such a good, authentic Catholic, he’s really popular among Protestants because they see what Catholicism should be.”

Zahorian first met the future cardinal in 2014 when he was the keynote speaker and she was presenting on media evangelization at an Awakening the Domestic Church (ADC) conference at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

The film’s executive producer, Deacon Darrell Wentworth, who serves at St. Gregory the Great, 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 ADC conference.

‘Everybody loves this guy’

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.”

After the ADC conference, Zahorian acquired then-Father Cantalamessa’s contact information and inquired with him about doing a documentary.

Deacon Darrell Wentworth, left, who serves at St. Gregory the Great Parish, Virginia Beach, was executive producer of “The Preacher to the Popes.” He has worked in ecumenism for the Diocese of Richmond since the early 2000s. Ashley Zahorian, the film’s director and producer, contacted then-Father Raniero Cantalamessa after they met at a conference in 2014 about making him the subject of a documentary. (Photos courtesy of CMAX Media)

“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.

She said financing to start the project was secured through New Dominion Pictures, and a group flew to Rome for two days to interview Cardinal Cantalamessa and others.

“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.

‘Incredible blessing’

Deacon Wentworth said his job as executive producer was “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 independent film was that work could only be done when the team had time and money available. The total budget for the film is $250,000, some of which has yet to be raised.

Another test was COVID. 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.

“Just the willingness of people to do roles they weren’t planning on in order to get it finished, his graciousness and being OK with that happening, and the whole team kind of quietly working to make sure that he wouldn’t be stressed out while recovering from sickness, it’s just an incredible blessing, the team and the people we’ve interviewed,” Zahorian said.

Moved by the Holy Spirit

Additionally, 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 until he had died to finish it. That changed in late 2020 when Pope Francis announced that the Capuchin 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.”

“This film came about through prayer, but not just prayer from Catholics,” said Deacon Wentworth. “This film came about through prayer from a lot of groups of people.”

One of the things Zahorian said she admires most about Cardinal Cantalamessa is how he inspires everyone, and that it is apparent in the documentary.

“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 see 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.”

Zahorian hopes the film will help bring about authentic unity.

“Actually, an Anglican archbishop said it really well – that our unity comes through relationship not though doctrine – within Christian traditions. That we can come together in our relationship in Jesus and relationship with each other and not say we agree on every bit of doctrine, because we don’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stay with what does unify us and build up that relationship,” she said. “I’d like to see people really inspired to actually talk about faith with people outside of their own bubbles.”

‘Incredibly rewarding’

The filmmakers have had a few preview screenings locally to get feedback on the project. “Seeing people’s reaction to something that I’ve worked so hard on for years is incredibly rewarding,” said Zahorian.

“The Preacher to the Popes: Raniero Cantalamessa” will premier worldwide at 10 a.m. Eastern time and 4 p.m. Rome time on Dec. 18.

Two hundred seats at St. Patrick Theatre, Norfolk, are available for those who want to attend the premier in person, and there are no limits on the livestream. Participation is free, but everyone should register at cantalamessamovie.com.

After the premier, “The Preacher to the Popes” will be shown in limited screenings, with which United in Christ, an international organization for Christian unity, is assisting. Parishes, schools and other groups will be able to schedule screenings for their communities.

“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. It will also air on EWTN, Shalom, Catholic TV, CBN and Stremio for a period of time.

Editor’s note: Registration for the Dec. 18 global premier of “The Preacher to the Popes: Raniero Cantalamessa” and information on how to schedule a screening of the film is available at cantalamessamovie.com.

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