When Sir Alec Guinness went out in his costume as a priest, something happened that would change the course of his entire life.
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The recent news about Shia LaBeouf becoming Catholic after playing Padre Pio got me thinking about other actors who have played priests or religious.
Who could forget Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom, Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels, or Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s?
Some actors, famously, have even converted to Catholicism after playing clergy or religious in a movie. One of the most moving of these stories is that of Sir Alec Guinness.
Most young people today know him as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, but Sir Alec Guinness was a household name in his prime for many other unforgettable roles.
From Shakespearean tragedies (he starred as Romeo and Hamlet) to war films and spy shows (The Bridge over the River Kwai and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Guinness had a long and impressive acting career.
Incredibly, it was exactly through his work as an actor that God called him to conversion.
Guinness was cast as Father Brown, a crime-solving Catholic priest invented by G.K. Chesterton. Guinness traveled to France for filming in a remote French village.
One evening after filming, Guinness began walking back to his lodgings still dressed in his costume as a priest. As he walked through the French countryside, something simple but extraordinary happened, something that would change the course of his entire life, as reported by the Catholic Education Resource Center:
A small boy ran up and took his hand, walking along, and chatting happily in French. Finally he scampered off waving a cheerful, “Au revoir, mon pere!” Guinness was smitten with the experience, wondering that the mere costume of a priest could inspire such childlike trust and joy.
Guinness did not speak French, so he didn’t understand what the boy was telling him and could not correct the mistake. But actions speak louder than words, and he was deeply moved by the little boy’s actions. He wrote later,
Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.
There is a sting of pain reading his words in light of how we now know that some priests abused that trust.
But it’s remarkable to see how this little boy, whose name we will never know, affected the famous actor in such a huge way.
Guinness did not convert to Catholicism immediately. He faced a few more doubts and witnessed a few more instances of God’s providence.
One of these was the recovery of his young son, who was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down at age 11. His son actually became Catholic before Guinness himself did! Catholic Culture reports,
The future for the boy was doubtful, and at the end of each day’s work on the film, Guinness began dropping in at a little Catholic church on his route home. He decided to strike a bargain with God: If God would let Matthew recover, Guinness would not stand in the way if the boy wished to become Catholic.
Happily Matthew recovered completely, and Guinness and his wife enrolled him in a Jesuit academy. At the age of 15, Matthew announced that he wished to become Catholic. Guinness kept his end of the bargain with God: He readily agreed to the conversion.
Slowly, Guinness’ heart continued to thaw toward God. He began meeting with a Catholic priest, made a retreat at a Trappist abbey, and even attended Mass with Grace Kelly while he was working on a film in Los Angeles.
At last, Guinness was received into the Catholic Church by the bishop of Portsmouth. His wife converted soon after, and the two remained Catholic all their lives.
There are strong parallels between the experiences of these two actors who converted after playing the role of priests. We certainly wish all the best to LaBeouf as he journeys home to the Church.
And I find myself wondering about the little boy who affected Guinness so greatly. Truly we never know the effect that we or our children will have on others.
All we can do is plant seeds faithfully, trusting that God will reap a harvest someday that we may never see on this earth, but will see and rejoice over in heaven.