When I was a young man thinking about the priesthood at the turn of the century and millennium, there was a biography circulating among discerners. It was titled A Priest Forever: The Life of Fr. Eugene Hamilton by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR. It was an inspiring story about a young man in the seminary, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who was ordained a priest on his deathbed. One couldn’t read that book without a tear in their eye.
The same could be said for the new movie Father Stu, starring Mark Wahlberg. At the film’s beginning, you meet a gruff, rough around the edges character in the boxer turned aspiring actor Stuart Long. He’s drawn to church without a pure reason—he’s attracted to a girl and wants to date her. Slowly, the conversion of Stuart Long unfolds before your eyes on the screen. His budding relationship with the young lady leads him to a relationship with Christ. God can use all motives for his glory. Stuart converts to Catholicism, continues seeking God, and this shouldn’t be a spoiler given the title of the movie, enters the seminary to become a priest.
How does Stuart’s story remind me of Fr. Eugene Hamilton? During his seminary journey, Stuart develops an autoimmune disease that begins attacking his muscular system. Unlike Fr. Hamilton, who had many rallying for his ordination before his death; those responsible for the formation of Father Stu believed his ordination to the priesthood should not take place due to the nature of his debilitating disease. There was a fear he wouldn’t be able to celebrate the sacraments with dignity. Could he hold the host in his hands at consecration? Would he be able to extend his fingers to anoint a sick person? Again, not a spoiler, he is ordained, and the last part of the movie focuses on the nature of his priestly ministry.
The movie itself is the telling of a vocation story. Every priest is asked by parishioners and strangers, “Why did you become a priest?” This two-hour film tells the story of how God called Father Stu and how he responded to God’s grace and the ongoing call to conversion. My generation of priests grew up watching Fishers of Men produced by Grassroots Films. Who wasn’t moved by the scene of a priest rushing to the scene of a car accident to administer the sacraments? When I was in the seminary, Bishop Robert Barron produced Heroic Priesthood as a new vocation recruitment video. I believe that as the story of Father Stu is told on the big screen, that it will indeed inspire men to consider a call to the priesthood. They will discover that despite their past, God still could be calling them to follow Him. This is a feature length vocation video.
Even more importantly, this is the movie the world needs to see about the priesthood. The Netflix documentary, Procession, or the movie Spotlight told the horrific story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. These stories discourage the people of God about the priesthood and also do not encourage priestly vocations. Father Stu shines the light on a heroic priest and helps the secular world to discover the genuineness of Catholic priests and that not all priests are child molesters. God used Father Stu, who had a checkered past and many faults, to become a priest, and through his story to touch the hearts of many believers, including Mark Wahlberg who knew he wanted to tell Stu’s story.
His story can help change the narrative our culture believes about the priesthood. This is the story of the priesthood that we need today. We don’t need the vampire priest like Fr. Paul Hill in Midnight Mass or weird priests with odd fetishes like Fr. Russo in Archive 81 (both)on Netflix. These priests do not inspire the next generation of young people to become faithful priests of the Church. It is stories like Father Stu who heard God’s call and kept fighting for it, and then lived it out during the short years of his ministry that will inspire a new generation of seminarians and God-willing priests.
If you need restored hope in the priesthood, allow Father Stu to do just that. God was at work in his life, changing and transforming him, and God is at work in us as we learn his story. Inspired by Father Stu, let us renew our dedication in praying for holy priests and an increase in generous responses to God’s call to the priesthood.
Father Stu hits theatres on April 13.
image: Still from the film Father Stu courtesy of FatherStuMovie.com.