This Movie Changed Me

Charles Pope

Toy Story

Last Updated

June 12, 2018

Original Air Date

June 12, 2018

Toy Story helped Monsignor Charles Pope through a time of personal crisis. From ego to failure to self-acceptance, Charles Pope embraced his inner Buzz Lightyear and in the process, himself.

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Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter–St. Cyprian Church in Washington, D.C. During his college days, he served as a church organist, a cantor, and a choir director, which is how he discovered his call to the priesthood. And, fun fact — he used to hold weekly bible studies in the U.S. Congress.


Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Monsignor Charles Pope about the movie that changed his life, Toy Story. You might’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t, don’t worry, we’re going to give you all the details to follow along.

[music: “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” by Randy Newman from Toy Story: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack]

Like everyone who watched Toy Story back in 1995, my mind was blown away by the animation that Pixar created in that movie. The other thing that blew me away was the level of emotion and humanity that each one of the toys, who are the main characters, carried with them.

Toy Story is about a little boy named Andy and the family of toys that he has shared his life with for most of his childhood. We meet Andy and his toys on the eve of his birthday, when he’s given a new toy in the form of space ranger, Buzz Lightyear.

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Buzz Lightyear becomes Andy’s favorite new toy, which causes his former favorite toy, Sheriff Woody, to become extremely insecure and angry. And his mission in life becomes trying to get rid of Buzz.

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Buzz Lightyear is voiced by Tim Allen, and Sheriff Woody is voiced by the and only, Tom Hanks. And even though Toy Story is a kids movie, there are so many layers to it, including the major existential questions of all our lives — why are we here on Earth? What are our roles? And what can we contribute? Monsignor Charles Pope is a pastor in D.C. And when he was 33, Toy Story entered his life in a moment of crisis.

Charles Pope: I’d been asked to take a parish. I was one of the youngest priests that’d ever been asked to be a pastor in the diocese, and so maximum promotion, prestige —

Ms. Percy: It’s a huge compliment.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, a compliment. But it was a difficult parish, and it had very serious financial problems, and so on. And I said yes, but I began to have panic attacks; I just wasn’t able to handle the stress level. And so at some point I finally had to — I was hospitalized for a week. And they did evaluations, and then I was asked to take a month off. And let’s just say, the assignment did not continue.

Ms. Percy: Oh, wow. And that, itself, is so hard to take, because something that was given for you that was such a promotion, that was such a compliment, then to have it taken away — that’s so hard.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, a big wound to my pride, which was really, probably, my problem. I probably should not have said yes. I wasn’t ready for a challenge like that yet. I probably should have prayed more and said, “I’m not so sure I’m ready for that just yet. I need more time.”

Ms. Percy: So you went to see Toy Story in the midst of all of this.

Msgr. Pope: Right. And it was interesting — on the way to see Toy Story, the religious sister that I went with, we were held up at gunpoint right outside the convent.

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God.

Msgr. Pope: And I was in such a low state at the time that I thought, “Go ahead and kill me.” I didn’t literally say that out loud, but I felt that way. But I was with Sister Charlotte, Sister Charlotte Marshall, and she said, “We are being held up. You must give them your wallet.” [laughs] The guy hit me with the weapon, kind of pistol-whipped me.

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God.

Msgr. Pope: And ran off with it. But at that point, I was in such psychologically bad shape that I just shook it off. I didn’t know what else to do. And we went in, did the police report, and said, “Well, let’s get the later show.” So instead of going to the 6:00 —

Ms. Percy: [laughs] The resilience of you guys!

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, we went to the 8:30 show. And we decided to see it. And going in, it spoke very powerfully to me, particularly the figure Buzz Lightyear, because that’s who I thought I was — “Buzz Lightyear!” I was young and proud. I was just coming out of my 20s, and guys in their 20s usually think they can do anything.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] You’re always saying, “To infinity and beyond.”

Msgr. Pope: “To infinity and beyond” — that was my — what a wonderful motto. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Really, yeah. [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: Impossible, but a wonderful motto. And he so much represented me before my — I’ll just call it my nervous breakdown. And I was amazed at — my gosh, that was me. I thought I could do anything. And Buzz actually believed his own bluster. He thought that the mother ship was just out of range. He kept calling for the mother ship.

Ms. Percy: I mean he was — he didn’t question it at all. I mean I re-watched the film before coming to speak with you, and I was amazed by — he is dedicated. He has such confidence in the fact that he is an astronaut. He is Buzz Lightyear. He doesn’t question it.

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, and that’s — we should be doing a lot of questioning. [laughs] But I guess when you’re in your 20s — I can’t speak for every 20-some-year-old, but when I was in my 20s, I didn’t do a lot of questioning. I felt like I could almost do anything, and I just discovered I couldn’t. And I was horrified. And there comes this critical moment in Buzz Lightyear’s life, in the movie, where he realizes — Woody kept telling him, in the movie, “You’re just a toy!” [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, “You’re just a toy!” [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: “This isn’t for real!” And “No, the mother ship must be just out of range.” But at some point, that critical moment in Sid’s house where he tries to escape and falls over the rail, and the arm falls off, and that plaintive song that “Clearly, I will go sailing no more” — I started to cry at that moment in the movie, because I felt that way. I felt damaged.

[music: “I Will Go Sailing No More” by Randy Newman from Toy Story: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack]

Msgr. Pope: I felt just — all my power was gone, and I felt just useless. I felt embarrassed. I thought, “Well, maybe I’m just a burden to the diocese.” But I was just so devastated, and I thought, “I will go sailing no more.” And that was kind of my theme song. But Buzz recovered, and so have I, in these years that have passed.

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Ms. Percy: So in the blog post that you wrote, you talk a little bit about this realization that Buzz Lightyear has and that ultimately you had. And it’s just so beautiful, I want to read it back to you. You said, “God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end, Buzz does save the day by simply being who he needs to be — a toy, and who he was made to be — a toy.” And then you said, “In our greatness — our greatness does not come from our own self-inflated actions, but from God. And God doesn’t need us to pretend to be something we’re not. What he needs is for us to be exactly who he needs us to be. It is often in our weakness that he is able to do his greatest work.” I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about here, is that realization that Buzz ultimately gets to. Once he realizes that he is just a toy, there’s that real serious depression he falls into. He’s incapable of doing anything else. Then Woody is also depressed. [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: Right.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] They depress each other when they’re both like, “What can we do? We’re just toys.”

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, and that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do — be what we’ve been made to be. And it’s an insight that — so often, the great patriarchs in the Bible had to have a mighty fall and had to struggle, and it was in their weakness that God could use them. I think of Jacob, who had to lean on a staff, and he was finally old enough and humble enough that God could trust him. Or Moses — at age 40, thought he was in the prime of his life he was gonna save the Jewish people. No, he was too proud, and he ended up murdering a man. And God said, “Off to the desert with you. I’m gonna humble you.” And you raise a family, that’ll really humble you. [laughs] And then, finally, at 80, Moses was able — was now weak enough that God could really be his strength. And that’s the insight.

And I think, in my own life, in my own struggle, it was to realize that saying of Saint Paul — “For when I am weak, then I’m really strong, because then the power of God will rest on me.” And so that’s my religious understanding of that. I’d always recited the text, but to actually be living it was embarrassing, and also — but it was a powerful moment.

And what’s interesting too is that God uses almost evil, in the Buzz Lightyear story — this kid, Sid, who’s just a nasty kid…

Ms. Percy: I know. There don’t seem to be a lot of redeeming qualities to Sid, I gotta tell you. He tortures his sister’s toys. He completely decapitates all the toys he has and then makes them into these grotesque creatures. [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: But somewhere in the midst of experiencing all that evil, Buzz is also instructed. And the kid makes this rocket, and he’s gonna send them off, probably try to think of destroying the toy Buzz Lightyear. But at the end, that’s the very thing God used. That rocket was just what they needed at the moment when he was able to soar. He did go sailing, and he saved the day. And it was interesting — it wasn’t in any of the ways he thought. It wasn’t through his own weight-lifting or getting back.

Ms. Percy: Through his laser… [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: Just letting life unfold and letting God make use of what was, to fulfill the ends.

Ms. Percy: What he had to offer.

Msgr. Pope: Mm-hmm

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Ms. Percy: One thing that I’m struck by — I think I’ve seen the movie maybe, now, six times. And this recent time, watching it, what really struck me was how every single toy had a purpose and helped in their own way, and how coming together as a group was actually how they were able to make anything happen, any change happen. And it really brought home that idea that we were just talking about, about all of us having the purpose that God gave us, just by being ourselves.

And I just wonder, as you have grown and gotten older and further in your career as a priest, how this movie and the lessons you learn from it have also changed with you, how they continue to inform you?

Msgr. Pope: Well, and the point you were making is so important — I haven’t learned just to depend on God, but to depend on others, whom God sends me. And I — in my own spiritual walk, I’ve just had to learn, I don’t have all the gifts, and you don’t have all the gifts, but together we have all the gifts, like you were saying with the toys. And that’s a beautiful insight. And somehow, they all work together. And sometimes, through their conflicts, like Woody and Buzz — [laughs] a lot of conflict. But in that conflict, there’s truth. And somewhere — we’re having a hard time, these days, realizing that even in conflict, if we can stay in a conversation, in a relationship, you’d be surprised how much we can learn from each other.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and a lot of that conflict, actually, between the two of them, is ego. It’s lack of humility. And they both have to be humbled.

Msgr. Pope: They kind of meet their match in each other. [laughs] And I’ve found that in life, that there are people that — I’ve met my match and went, “Ooh.” And I’ve discovered, the thing I most dislike about them is the thing I most dislike about myself.

Ms. Percy: Ugh, I hate that that’s true, but it’s true. [laughs]

Msgr. Pope: They’re more similar to me than I like to admit.

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Msgr. Pope: I guess I had to process the movie even later. You sort of have the moment but later as you reflect — and I will say to come out of the difficulty I was in took a good 15 years, really, of long psychotherapy, spiritual direction, sacraments and prayer and deliverance ministry — all these things that we do in the church. But also, psychotherapy was very important. I learned so much about who I really am, not who I think I ought to be — “the Charles as he ought to be.” And then here’s the Charles who really is, and with his strengths and his weaknesses and his needs and his what he can offer, and somewhere, to discover that I did go sailing again — and yet, in a very different way, as a humbler man, more dependent, more realizing I don’t have all the answers, and I need to ask for help, and I really need — I still struggle with being opinionated. As we see in the sequels, Buzz Lightyear is still sort of the same old Buzz Lightyear.

Ms. Percy: Exactly, yeah.

Msgr. Pope: A little blustery.

Ms. Percy: Didn’t change his personality…

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, but somehow, the worst of it’s been dealt with. And I hope that for me, as I make my journey to greater and greater humility out of pride, that I’ll just be able to, again, allow the Lord to do the work he needs to do in my life.

Ms. Percy: That’s beautiful. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about Toy Story that you really want to say or talk about?

Msgr. Pope: Yeah, there is this one area here that I — well, actually, two areas, if I could.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, of course.

Msgr. Pope: I often use Buzz Lightyear when I do men’s ministry.

Ms. Percy: Oh, wow.

Msgr. Pope: Because again, a lot of men too, we have a very idealistic sense of ourselves. And in some sense, masculinity is in crisis today. And sometimes, we overcorrect. We want to be big and blustery. So I use it a lot with men as a kind of a spiritual journey, sometimes in groups of men, or just sometimes in individual spiritual direction. And they kind of scratch their head when I tell them to watch Toy Story.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, immediately, they don’t get it, because you associate it with a kids’ movie. But then you watch it, and you go, oh, my God, this is not. There’s so much depth here.

Msgr. Pope: The other thing is, there is this — the final scene, where Buzz saves the day, and he’s reuniting Woody and himself with Andy and the young boy who loves them, but his ability to do this was possible because another child strapped a rocket to him. The child had misused Buzz. But in accepting this humiliation, Buzz actually comes alive. And there’s a line in the Bible where Joseph is finally reunited with his brothers, who tried to kill him, and then they figured, “We’ll make some money. We’ll sell him into slavery” — he says, “Don’t worry.” He says, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.”

There’s a saying in gospel music: “God can make a way out of no way. And he can write straight with crooked lines.” And there’s something powerful about the fact that God can even use the evils and injustices that we experience as a way to bring us healing and to make us even more vital in his work to save the world and to save so many others. So all of these are just ways to say, that night I got held up at gunpoint, the humiliation even got deeper. I felt like the old me would’ve wanted to protect the good sister I was with, and I would’ve saved the day, and I would’ve confronted the guy and sent him running. But thanks be to God, I was at that point humble enough that I was — there wasn’t enough of a fight in me. And I might have died that night, and maybe the sister would have died and been hurt. But in that injustice that we experienced, somewhere, the Lord was also working and setting me up to see something in that movie that I might not have seen that night, if I’d been the big hero and saved the day.

[excerpt from Toy Story]

Ms. Percy: Monsignor Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church in Washington D.C. Before his pastoring days, he was a church musician and a Computer Systems Analyst with the Army Corp of Engineers.

[music: “Strange Things” by Randy Newman from Toy Story: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack]

Next time, we’re going to be talking about, one of my favorite topics, father-daughter relationships, specifically in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Fair warning in advance, it is emotional. You are going to cry. Find it on all the usual streaming sites, or at your local library.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, and Marie Sambilay, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like listening.

Special shoutout this week to Karen C. for her kind and thoughtful email to us. We love that you’re thinking about what movies changed you. One of Karen’s picks is My Cousin Vinny, and I love that movie too, because it features Marisa Tomei, in an Oscar-winning performance, playing a woman who is underestimated the entire movie and ends up cracking the case.

I’m Lily Percy, and you’ve got a friend in me.

[music: “Strange Things” by Randy Newman from Toy Story: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack]

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