Handling the Church Scandal: Movies That Can Help

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].

(Originally published in LIGUORIAN Magazine, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO, 63057.)

The Mission

What we need are some heroic examples to match good for evil and remind us that there is holiness in the People of God that is as shocking in its intensity as is the evil of priests who molest children.

Thank God we live in the modern age! This is a time for savvy Catholics, to be attentive to the guidance of the Magisterium, and put the media to one of its best uses. As the most powerful art form, movies can inspire and edify us with stirring visualizations of heroic lives, and for our purposes these days, heroic priestly lives.

By far my favorite hero-priest film is The Mission. Jeremy Irons leads a stellar cast including Robert De Niro, and Liam Neeson, in a truth based tribute to the sacrifices and struggles of the 16th Century Jesuit missionaries to South America. First martyred by the Guarani Indians and then martyred for their success among the Guarani by European governments intent on expanding the slave trade, the priests in the film make choices that only make sense in the light of faith. Particularly Irons’ Father Gabriel, sets an example of a priestly life lived intelligently and boldly, and yet ultimately dependent not on human strength, but on the faithfulness of God. The haunting soundtrack written by the great Ennio Morricone and available on CD, never fails to lead me towards compunction and the desire for holiness. (The Mission deals with adult themes and is not suitable for children.)

Power and Glory

The theme of the mysterious grace of the priesthood to create a hero out of an ordinary man is explored in three other powerful and very different films, Becket, The Power and the Glory and Romero.

Starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, for nearly two decades, Becket was the film that served as a spiritual altar call, inspiring thousands of young men to pursue the priesthood. The story relates how a youthful friendship between Henry II of England and Thomas Becket is transformed into a climactic spiritual struggle that leads both men to discover their destinies. Not unlike the priests and bishops of our current scandal, Becket is offered the opportunity to use his role in the Church to gratify his own personal desires. The change that his ordination has meant in his life at first baffles and then enrages his former partner in mischief, King Henry. Becket’s fidelity to his vocation ultimately leads to his martyrdom, but it is reckoned in the film as a triumph of the human spirit and the power of God.

Based on real events in El Salvador in the 1980’s, Romero ranks as one of the most disturbing and yet important films I have ever seen. It is a stark and at times brutal look at the suffering of the people in a country rent by civil war, and how a bookish librarian, Oscar Romero, allows his vocation of Bishop to transform him into a heroic witness of peace and justice. Starring Raul Julia, the film is at once about man’s inhumanity to man, and how the hour of darkness is also the hour of heroes and saints. (Romero is rated R for violence and is not suitable for children.)

Made in 1961, The Power and the Glory is based on Graham Greene’s book, arguably one of the greatest Catholic novels ever written. The book was also adapted into a 1947 Hollywood film, The Fugitive, which was directed by John Ford, but much of the novel’s grittiness is lost in this version. Set against the persecution of the Church in 1930’s Mexico, the 1961 film stars Laurence Olivier and George C. Scott as a weak-willed priest and the relentless Lieutenant who pursues him. In a moment in which we are all brooding over sinful priests, this story can bring a ray of hope that God’s power can transform every sin into a victory of grace. Never released theatrically in the United States, this film is hard to find, but definitely worth the effort.

Scarlet and Black

Another one of the greatest priests we have seen on the silver screen comes in the classic film, On the Waterfront. As the pastor to the teamsters, Karl Malden brings to life an uncompromising man of God, who consistently preaches the Gospel loud and clear, to an audience of seemingly hardened hearts and deaf ears.

Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer face off as the gritty priest Fr. Hugh O’Flaherty and a brutal SS Colonel Kapplar in the WWII thriller, The Scarlet and the Black. Based on true events, the film goes a long way to correct the historical record about the Vatican’s real involvement in saving thousands of people from the Nazis. It is an impressive film that culminates in O’Flaherty setting an astounding example of forgiveness and unconditional love.

Some other older films that may not hold up with your teenagers but which are still worth viewing for their positive priest portrayals, include the Spencer Tracy classic, Boys Town, The Bells of St. Mary’s, starring Bing Crosby, The Keys of the Kingdom starring Gregory Peck, and The Devil at Four O’Clock starring Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra.

So, let the movies minister to you and your family in these days of trial for the Church. We can’t allow this crisis to make us forget that the same priesthood that gave opportunities to terrible men like Geoghan and Shanley, has also fostered the heroic choices of men like Thomas Becket, Fr. Gabriel and Oscar Romero.

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