When would modern day Hollywood ever portray the Catholic priesthood right again?

10 04 2021

In Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “I Confess (1953)”, a priest, Fr. Michael Logan would rather face death than violate the sanctity of confessional when falsely accused of murder. In such movies, one learned something of the dedication and firmness of the conviction of those who are called to the catholic priesthood. In today’s Hollywood however, all a priest has to do is open his mouth and you realize he knows nothing about the priesthood, the church or the Christian altogether and his words are filled with shallow and pathetic clichés. Today, Hollywood script writers feel no need or obligation to truthfulness and accuracy regarding the priesthood and bend over backwards to present priest as fools, clumsy and dimwitted.  Thus when I watched Bishop Baron sterling review of a movie “Calvary (2014), about a priest who threatened with death went on to offer his life as an offer of love and forgiveness, I wanted to watch the movie “Calvary” to see if Hollywood has finally got it right.

The story is set in Ireland, a priest, Fr James Lavelle (Bleedon Gleeson), is accosted in confessional by a very bitter man who threatens to kill him in 7 days time, because he was abused by a priest, and thus wanted revenge. The angry man would not give his name but told the priest that he will give him seven days to put his affairs in order at the end of which he would meet him at the beach for the kill. The next seven days tried the nerves of the priest who had to resist the temptation fleeing and brace up to meet the killer on the appointed date.

Yet, in spite of Bishop Barron’s excellent review, and in spite of great cinematography, I was left once again with a hint of disappointment by the scripts portrayal of Fr James character. He comes across as a frustrated man. Granted that post sex abuse scandal Ireland is a difficult place for a priest, and his cynical parishioners often mocked him, nevertheless, he lacks deep knowledge of theology and ability to refute errors so beloved in St. Thomas Aquinas and he is often tongue tied when he comes up against the postmodernist arguments of his cynical parishioners.

In the movies opening scenes, Fr. James worries about a very promiscuous woman parishioner who was often beaten by her lovers, in one instance she comes to church with bruises on her face, he tries to get her to say who did it but she wouldn’t tell, so he asks her husband who is a butcher but he says it wasn’t him but a black man who is her latest boyfriend. So he confronts the black man and tells him not to do it again, but the man gets angry and throws a cigarette butt at him practically telling to shove off and mind his own business. It can be argued that as a priest, Fr. James overstepped his boundaries there and should not have taken the path of confrontation, of playing the neighborhood policeman but rather should have restricted himself to praying and administering the sacraments of penance to this woman, hoping that she will of her own accord change her ways.

That is what Jesus would do isn’t it? Take for example the case of Mary Magdalene. Jesus did not go chasing down all the men with Mary Magdalene and having a word with them. Rather he spoke to Magdalena, and his words brought her peace and encouragement and she finally decided to change her ways. Similarly, Christ spoke in dept with his flock and was not afraid of telling them difficult truths even if they wished to kill him. It is not difficult to see that there were many of Fr. James’ parishioners who needed to hear healing but Fr. James seemed strangely incapable of providing that healing perhaps out fear of rejection. This perhaps denotes a lack of faith typical of the modern clerics as well as too much reliance on human logic.

In another scene, Fr. James goes to visit a serial killer in prison, yet again he failed to initiate the type of conversation that could lead to repentance and in the ended up screaming accusations at the sinner. He should have helped this killer ask God’s mercy or does he not believe in the power of prayers himself? Then there is the issue of the drinking. Towards the end of the movies, when his time was almost near, and knowing that time is running out, Fr. James  took to drinking, this is of course is very bad for a priest, whisky and prayers aren’t the best of friends; it is either one or the other. Compare this with what Jesus did during his last hour, Christ rejected the cup of sour wine offered to him on the cross, but even more, he prayed for those who where crucifying him. This is what I would have expected Fr. James to do if he wished to portray the image of true priest rather than a caricature.

I believe a priest can triumph even in an environment of great cynicism through prayers, fasting and penance bringing about the conversion of hearts because the Holy Spirit is the one that acts. That is how Cure of Ars was able to covert his whole parish in post- French revolution France. He had long conversations in spiritual directions with his parishioner helping them examine their souls and resume a relationship with God.

Finally, the theme of Calvary is forgiveness, a much underrated virtue in modern society, as father James told his daughter, Fiona.  Christianity brought forgiveness to the world and it is the first thing the world chunks out when it throws Christianity out the window and thus its cities are full of people locked in a vicious circle, men like Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowdy)  threatening to kill Fr. James,  because he cannot forgive, and has grown old in angst because of an evil that happened years past, when he was a child and which he has allowed to consumes his  present, such that he is ready to kill, not just the guilty party, but anyone. As unspeakable as the clerical abuse scandal in Ireland and elsewhere was, it is still staggering that in a society where sex is promoted as a commodity for recreation, its abuse by a minority of unfortunate clerics calls for the killing of the name of every good priest to satiate the thirst of unforgiving hearts, yet to err is human and to forgive is divine. Thus Fiona’s visiting him in prison after he had killed her father embodies for him the superiority of Christian forgiveness and hope. 

By Chinwuba Iyizoba


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