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"Calvary" is receiving countless accolades, and rightly so. There is much to praise: John Michael McDonagh’s spare, flawless script; Patrick Cassidy’s magnificent, contemplative score; the haunting cinematography of the rugged western coast and the windswept countryside of County Sligo – especially the ancient Benbulbin; and the forceful acting performances of the entire cast. Brendan Gleeson’s “good priest” has been hailed as the finest screen portrayal of a Catholic priest in decades. It deftly handles a grim, painful topic—child sexual abuse—without striking a false note. If you haven’t seen "Calvary," skip these musings, complete with spoilers, and go see it. Otherwise, read on.
"Calvary" is a compelling study of a priest struggling to minister to a Catholic parish devastated by the abuse scandal in contemporary Ireland—a Church figuratively and literally in flames. And yet, the film transcends its particular setting to hold a mirror up to each one of us to reveal the darkness inside the human person. At times, the film becomes a medieval allegory; each role a caricature of a deadly sin: Greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, and wrath. And like a medieval allegory, the film allows the viewer to contemplate what path one should take when the right road has been lost.
The film opens in the confessional when a man, known to the priest despite the scrim, but not to the viewer, announces that he will kill the priest in a week’s time—not for any sin that he has committed, but precisely because he is a “good priest.” It is the classic propitiatory offering of the innocent one to atone for the sins of the many. As the characters process to receive the Eucharist from Father James, the viewer is left to wonder which parishioner is the would-be murderer, and can’t be faulted for questioning whether any of them are worthy to approach the sacrament. So, within the first few moments of the film, the sacraments of penance and communion are distorted and disfigured. Penance—meant for contrition, purpose of amendment and forgiveness—becomes the setting for murderous intent and revenge. Holy Communion meant to symbolize unity and eternal life instead serves as a line-up of murderous suspects.
The Church has always taught that the sacraments, like Baptism, Penance & the Eucharist, are the means by which God chooses to give His grace to us wretched sinners. Of course, God can—and does—give us grace directly. But He chose these “outward, visible signs,” which appeal to us gritty, earthy creatures, as the primary means of distributing his mercy. The viewer of "Calvary" wonders, though, whether the sacramental life is still “relevant” in the wake of the child sexual abuse scandal. Can we receive sacraments offered by complicit members of an institutional Church without doubt and bitterness? Can we forgive others and receive forgiveness – without cynicism?
The film contains numerous instances in which sacraments are distorted from their purpose and meaning. We see numerous “faux” confessions in which would-be penitents taunt Father James’s faith, boast of their sins, justify their depravities and fail to seek forgiveness or to forgive one another. The vows of marriage are mocked by a cuckold who claims he is happier with an adulterous wife because she no longer nags him. The priesthood is depicted with contempt or scorn—an officious bishop and a feckless, obsequious priest act not so much as foils to Father James’s clearly authentic vocation, but rather, epitomize the bureaucratic hierarchy and the social-worker pastors of the contemporary priesthood. There are no life-giving waters of Baptism in the film. (Indeed, there is not one infant to be seen.) The film gives little hope of rebirth or new life. No phoenix rises from the ashes of Father James’s destroyed church. Even cannibalism makes an appearance – the ultimate diabolical allusion to the Eucharistic meal in which Catholics believe they consume the very body and blood of Christ.
With all of the inversions of the sacraments, one wonders whether the film leaves room for the operation of grace through sacraments at all. The priest himself never seeks penance or receives the Eucharist. The film’s single, sincere moment of contrition and forgiveness happens over the telephone outside the context of the sacrament. Perhaps, the viewer wonders, the priesthood, sacraments and the Church herself are archaic vestiges of a superstitious past. Perhaps, as the local pub owner says to Father James with a sneer, “[Their] time is gone.”
And yet, Father James replies, “My time will never be gone.” An echo of the promise, “I will be with you always, until the close of the age.” Despite the vile and vulgar sinners strewn throughout the film, we know whom we are up against. Father James’s parishioners are more pathetic than evil; he knows that his true enemy is no mere flesh and blood but rather the “ruler of this present darkness.” When Father James asks the town’s wealthy financier the source of his deep emptiness, he responds, “It comes from nowhere.” It is telling that the rich man does not say that he doesn’t know the source of his emptiness, but rather he gives a precise answer. “Nowhere” is a place. And, to persevere against that darkness, we need the light of faith and the strength of grace. We need, as Father James said in consoling the rich man, to get on the “right track.” He might have said that we need to get on the Way.
Despite her brokenness in the wake of the abuse scandals, the Church and her sacramental life is still the necessary and fruitful Way to restoring what has been lost. In at least two instances, the film points to the continued efficacy of the Church and the sacraments as sources of grace and mercy. First, there is a luminous scene in which Father James gives last rites to a tourist mortally wounded in an accident. It is the only scene in the film in which a sacrament is sincerely desired and received, and the tourist’s wife is notable for her deep faith, in stark contrast to the film’s other thoroughly cynical characters. Taunted by the atheist doctor as engaging in mere “gobbledygook,” Father James affirms the truth of the sacrament’s meaning, despite the fact that there is no earthly hope for the man, “Every life is sacred, Frank, for God’s sake.” The sacrament is no mere charade to comfort an anguished wife; there is no suggestion that the sacrament will effect a miraculous physical healing. Rather, it is eternal life that Father James seeks for the dying man. The tourist’s faithful wife remains unshaken despite her cross. Serenely and sorrowfully, she stands at the foot of her Calvary and, rather than curse an unjust God, she gives thanks for a marriage filled with love. In the end, she and Father James turn to that most faithful of sorrowful women when they offer the "Hail, Mary" together.
Second, the entire arc of the story—the self-sacrificial death of Father James, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep—is a Eucharistic offering, a Holy Mass. On Calvary, Christ laid down his life for the salvation of the world. Catholics believe that same Christ who offered himself on the cross of Calvary offers Himself on the altar at each Mass. The human priest who offers this sacrifice is acting in persona Christi. Representing Jesus, Father James, who suffers his own temptations and agony in the garden, is both holy priest and innocent victim, offering himself for the sins of others. In the moment before Father James receives his fatal wound, we hear the mournful Irish chant:
in the name of the Son who suffered the pain,
in the name of the powerful Holy Spirit,
may Mary and her Son journey with us.
A benediction for the Way.Ite, Missa est.
In the end, the film is not about the priest, but the priesthood. It is not about sins, but reconciliation. And, in the film’s final moments, we learn that it is about each one of us struggling with our emptiness, our wounds, our sins—and about our response to the sacramental grace offered by a broken, yet living Church. Did we weep for the violated, desecrated children? Can we forgive so as to be forgiven? After all, as Father James says, it is not his church. It is our Church.
Elizabeth Kirk, J.D., is a Resident Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University and former Associate Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture. She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband and three children.