The Film Deserves the Praise It Has Received in Depicting A Broken, Yet Living Church
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.
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