06 September 2014

On Anniversaries of Birthday and Profession and the Movie, "Calvary"

This last week I celebrated the anniversaries of both my perpetual eremitical profession and my birthday. For the past 7 years these days have been made incredibly special by what God has done in and with my life. I am immensely grateful for that but also so very grateful to members of my parish and other friends who have made these anniversaries so special during that time. One of the ways I celebrate with friends is to go to movies at this time. That was true this year and I wanted to recommend both of the films I saw (the first was When the Team Stands Tall, what is called around here, "The De La Salle Movie" --- it is both entertaining and inspiring), but especially I want to say something about Calvary.

Let me begin by noting that it is a brilliant movie --- difficult, horrifying in some ways, inspiring, challenging, provocative, and often beautiful both in its simplicity and its complexity. The structure is both spare and profound. The characters are complex and are sometimes easy to both dislike and to empathize with. At the center of the story is a good priest. The antagonist is a man who is the victim or long term sexual abuse by clergy. This man enters the confessional where the priest is waiting and begins by saying (essentially), "I first tasted semen at the age of seven." After a series of exchanges the priest, who has not harmed the man (or anyone else in his role as priest), is told that at the end of a week, Sunday next, the man will kill him on the beach. Like Jesus who knows if he goes to Jerusalem he will be killed, the priest has no doubts about the man's sincerity or intention. Like Jesus the priest continues his public ministry right up until the last minute and like Jesus he has a choice to flee or to "go to Jerusalem". In the end he goes, but not without his own Gethsemane crisis and related decision.

I should also say that the parallels with Jesus' story are not drawn in an "in your face" way. They are present because the man is a priest and a good one who lives his life in Christ with integrity. The parallels are there because they are there in the life of any priest, or any religious, for instance who lives his or her Christian vocation in this way. Still, this is not an easy vocation to live in an integral way and the degree of harm that can be done by those who do not do so is absolutely incalculable; Calvary does a very effective job of expressing both aspects of this truth. When the Church, and that means those individuals who live and act in the name of the Church, betray their commission to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed lives are ruined. Faith, though it may be vital and strong, is ALSO a fragile thing and it and the capacity for it can be murdered by ecclesiastical hypocrisy and sin. Calvary is also the story of such hypocrisy and the resultant death of faith in Ireland.

There is no way I can do justice to this movie but I do want to say what struck me most about it. First, we live in a world where even priests and religious who have NOT done terrible things and have lived their vows with integrity are sometimes treated with contempt or otherwise tarred with the same brush reserved for perpetrators. Last month, for instance, I had a conversation over lunch with a priest who was visiting from Ireland. He asked me about the response I got from wearing a habit and wondered if I received much negative attention or denigration because of it.

While I have had some ugly encounters (including one where someone I had never seen before almost succeeded in pushing me down a train platform escalator while snarling, "F___ing nun!") generally people are positive in their reception and many see me as someone they can talk to because of the habit (I like to think they approach because I personally signal an openness and capacity for pastoral ministry but certainly the habit invites them to consider speaking to me). In any case, this priest noted that in Ireland it is very different for a priest wearing a collar in public. Similarly, I know of a case where a priest here in the US was tried and convicted, falsely, and according to "evidence" that was flimsy at best and simply incredible. He was convicted on this basis merely because he was a priest, not because he had actually hurt anyone.

Calvary brings out what it is like to be true to one's calling in a world where who one is as well as what one stands for is often despised, denigrated, or ridiculed. It also makes very clear how a public life of ministry to others means that quite often one cannot share things with another person who truly understands but instead must bear them alone.  (This can be especially true when there are no other priests or religious around!) The loneliness which is a counterpoint to the consolation and communion of faith was striking and something many priests and religious know well.

Similarly,  the role of clergy and religious is a critical one in our church and world. While I do not mean to suggest that the laity do not serve similarly in their witness to the Gospel, a public ecclesial vocation can invite genuine faith or make it seem hypocritical and the Gospel a farce in a very profound way. In Calvary we spend a week with a faithful priest (Fr James LaVelle) who ministers the Word of God to those who both love and hate him and are often cynical at best about "the faith" they either cling to in some desperate but still-superficial way, or outright despise and reject. The relative dearth or even absence of priests, religious, and others who minister the Gospel with their whole lives is a terrible tragedy in our world and the results are particularly sad to see.

At the end of the movie, for instance, we revisit a series of scenes from the preceding week. Where once this priest walked with his daughter, was a hearing and healing presence, etc, now there are voids: an empty road, a deserted field, the ruins of a church, etc. I often had the sense during the movie that the Gospel of God is suffering for lack of priests (et al) while the world is suffering from a lack of a credible proclamation of the Gospel. The image I saw in my mind's eye was of a single priest (and often a single religious woman or man) holding darkness at bay like a small child with his  or her finger in the dike trying to keep it from disintegrating altogether and holding back flood waters which will destroy everything in their wake. I was struck forcibly by the weighty responsibility ministers of the Gospel hold today. For me this was a point of emotional "gravitas" and a lasting challenge.

When the film ends it seems at first that perhaps the assassin's bullets have allowed darkness to swallow up goodness or, perhaps worse, that Fr James LaVelle's life made no difference at all. But the priest's words have been heard by others; his observation that the lesson that needs to be heard more often and emphatically is that of forgiveness is picked up by his daughter (James became a priest only after the death of his wife). She in turn goes to visit his killer in prison. The killer's choice of a "good priest" was made so that people could be shocked --- just as Romans often killed people to shock and frighten the populace and deter revolution, etc. He was not looking for justice. Nothing, from his perspective, could be set right for him. He was angry and in pain and needed to scream as loudly as possible while exacting vengeance in some more-than-usually-inadequate way.

And yet, his murder of this good, though imperfect, man of God does more than simply shock. It begins a call for forgiveness and a dynamic of reconciliation which the whole of Ireland (and anyone else dealing with the scandals of the church in our world) really needs in order to move forward. This obedient priest has taken on the darkness and the sins of his confreres in religion and the priesthood and at the very least has demonstrated a nobility grounded in his firm belief in God and his vocation. While I did not personally have the sense this priest went to his death in expiation for the sins of others, in fact he does suffer innocently for those who are guilty and slowly the integrity of his life and death appear to allow light to shine in and through the darkness.

Of course there is SO much more to this movie: layers upon layers of structure and meaning and significant pieces and characters I have not even mentioned. It is a movie I am sure I could see at least a couple more times without "getting it all". More accurately perhaps, it is one of those movies which could be used for lectio over an extended period just as it is like one of Jesus' parables where we enter and reenter the story at different points with every hearing not in order to "get it" exactly, but to be challenged and changed by it so that we can see things in a new way. I recommend folks see it as soon as they can, especially since it is unlikely to be in theaters much longer --- it was slated for a limited engagement and was released on August 1.