Good Priests

The first priest I remember, at least the one who really made a difference, was a tall man with piercing eyes and a slight high pitch to his voice. He was my grandmother’s minister, not mine, although he showed as much care and attention to my parents and myself and my siblings when she died, and too young, that we might as well have been his parishioners. He was strong-framed, tight-bodied. When he entered a room, you could feel it. Grounded. Alive. There for you. The memory reminds me of Jack Lemmon in Mass Appeal, the little-seen 1984 light drama about heavy subjects – a priest who loves, but doubts that he can let his loves overcome his questions enough to admit them. He’s a man of kindness and doctrinal rectitude, but when these seem to collide, his kindness finally wins.

With this reverend, I was young enough to not know what a “vocation” was; but I was human enough to understand that this man loved us, loved me. Would listen. I remember sitting with him and pouring out my teenage angst through hot eyes and strained throat. He, hands lightly clasped, one leg crossed over the other, perhaps the only adult outside the cohort of my schoolteachers who still wore a suit after hours (because, I guess, he only ever had “during” ones), paying ever so careful and tender attention to my articulation of pain. His already soft eyes reddened and leaked a little too. His words were few, but his heart was enormous; what he said was that sometimes there is no explanation for suffering, but that he loved me, and he would do everything he could to support me through the emotional storm that I feared would consume me.

He meant it. And twenty-five years later, despite not even living on the same continent, and seeing him very rarely, I still feel the safety he induced; I experience the dignity of having my fears respected; I am moved by this authority figure who acknowledged his own doubts in the very moment of offering me security. He was prepared to risk appearing uncertain in the exercise of caring for another; he was the kind of man who might step in front of a train to stop it hitting someone else.

Like Trevor Howard in Ryan’s Daughter, David Lean’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and a film so poorly received at the time that Lean couldn’t get another film made for 14 years. It’s cliched and overwrought, to be sure, but Ryan’s Daughter has two great things going for it. The first is the landscape shots of the Dingle Peninsula, which make Ireland look almost too mythic; but I’ve been there, and it really does look like that.

The second is Trevor Howard, rumpled of face, slightly wonky of accent, resplendent in cassock and authority. His Father Collins is a marvelous creation, the robustness of his catechistic questioning of wayward villagers never divorced from his compassion for them; and in perhaps my favorite cinematic clerical moment, the solidness of his body serving as a bulwark against injustice. When a misguided warrior tries to harm someone, Father Collins gets in the way, putting his body in front of the vulnerable, thrusting a sturdy elbow to challenge a scapegoating fist. “You’re taking advantage of your cloth!” complains the warrior, indignant that a priest would block him. “That’s what it’s for,” announces Father Collins, a decisive rejoinder that declares, depending on your point of view, either the undeniable value of the priesthood, or that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I guess being willing to acknowledge that you might only be right twice a day, but that when you see broken things being trampled on you’d be willing to step in front of the next boot, is indeed what a good priest is for – or at least that’s a baseline for what clergy vocation fully realized might be.

We don’t hear many stories about good priests these days. This is partly a function of the very real traumas surfacing as our culture (thankfully) evolves a lack of tolerance for the abuse of the vulnerable. It is partly because of the psychological myopia that leads human beings to regress to the mean—in both senses of the word—because we predict probability based on how easily we can recall examples. A false perception of how bad things are arises when we pay disproportionate or unboundaried attention to an information media married to (or at least living in a dysfunctional community house with) the military-industrial-entertainment-anxiety complex. And it is partly due to the fact that the dialogue between science and religion is often dominated by those who see it as a competition in which one cancels the other out, rather than a spacious place in which—to use Flannery O’Connor’s magnificent idea about what happens when good form and good content meet—2 plus 2 equals 5.

I hate priests. (Priests are brilliant.)
God is dead. (Stalin is dead.)
All the wars in the world are caused by religion. (All the peace in the world is made by religion.)
Oppositional energy always recreates itself. (No it doesn’t.)
Yes it does.

And so on. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. Et cinema.

This cultural moment calls for an artistic response that seeks to transcend such upmanship. If the purpose of art is to help people live better—and I can’t think of a better definition of its purpose than that—and if we accept that we live in an age where anxiety threatens constantly to spill over into mass destruction (which ultimately also means self-destruction), then we need stories that affirm the possibility of holding two or more things in tension at the same time.

Some terrible things have been done in the name of the church. Some miraculous things have unfolded precisely because some people responded to a vocational call to service. My sense of transcendent possibility, openness to sharing in binding the wounds of the world (and have mine bound too), connectedness to community, understanding of the interdependence of all things came to me through my experience of church. And in church I also experienced the shaming of my body, condemnation of my desires, humiliation of my aspirations, and what might be called a culture of low-level repeated exorcisms which tried to expel things from me so I could be “whole” and ready for life as a leader in the big world and that I now believe to be akin to amputating a leg the day before putting me as a national representative in the Olympic marathon. It hurt me. It healed me. It clarified things to me. It confused me. Bono says she’s a whore, but she’s still my mother. What is often neglected in citing that remark is that it also makes me her son. I inherit the light and shadow. I must be conscious of how I might transmit them. Clergy moreso, perhaps.

I may have never seen clerical life portrayed in cinema with such a sense of realistic nuance as that found in the writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, for my money the film of the year, in which Brendan Gleeson’s Father James stands rock steady and open – he’s enormous and strong, microscopically interested and tender, a believer and a doubter, a Santa Claus with a salty mouth, as if Mt Rushmore had a sense of humor or the Grand Canyon could weep. Father James knows from the first minute of the story that he’s being threatened with murder – a symbolic act being planned by a victim (not yet, I think, a survivor) of monstrous injustice who believes that killing a decent priest would be noticed more than killing a bad one. It’s a mythic hook, and not just biblical myth, for Calvary is redolent with the history of cinematic portrayals of lonely men framed against a chorus of disapproval – High Noon comes to mind, with one good person trying to keep it together amidst the projections of multitudes.

A priest friend told me once that he seeks to cope with the temptations of ego by recognizing the distinction between vocation and persona – presiding at a celebrity wedding should be no more important than doing it for the blokes down the street; it’s easier to stay emotionally healthy and avoid the traps of selfish ambition when he sees himself as working with the grain of vocation. Father James, in Calvary, seeks to serve, but he’s not innocent nor illusioned. He’s the kind of priest that the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ would affirm. Just ask yourself how can I be of service, and try to do your best in that moment, and you’ll be ok. Even if they kill you. Emotionally healthy service is like radio waves in a perfect acoustic chamber – it bounces back on the one serving, like a smile from the face of God.

I was smiling, and crying, at Calvary, and not just because it captures its part of the Irish landscape in such exquisite fashion. No, because it reminded me of the priests I have loved, and the priest I want to be. (To those readers who have taken ordination vows, I offer respect, and also the notion that if we’re all called as members of the human family to serve each other, then I think calling us all priests may not be too much of a stretch.)

Father James knows that the answer to some questions is both “yes” and “no”; with Karl Malden’s Father Barry in On the Waterfront that there are times when railing against injustice is the only choice, with Jeremy Irons’ Father Gabriel in The Mission that part of vocational call is to suffer with your people, like Lothaire Bluteau’s Daniel in Jesus of Montreal (a special kind of priest) that sometimes one must break some vows in order to keep more important ones (the monsignor in that magnificent French-Canadian film is perhaps the best/worst cinematic example of religious authority washing its hands of – or being complicit in – evil).

Father James wants to use power to liberate, like his fellow Irish priest the late John O’Donohue, to train people’s fingers to unpick the knots that oppressive religion has tied them up in. He’s willing to give everything if it will help free someone else. He’s made his peace with God and himself, and he knows that nothing beautiful is ever really lost. The film in which he comes to life is the best one I’ve seen this year, because it knows how to tell the story of an individual in a way that somehow tells the truth about everyone else.

The first priest that I remember, at least the one who really made a difference, was the one with strong hands and a soft voice. He was my grandmother’s minister, not mine, but there was a sense in which the whole world was his parish, and while he wanted to be faithful to his clerical vocation, he also wanted us to know that each of us, in becoming human and learning to serve the common good, had an ever higher calling than that.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland currently living in the United States. If you enjoy his writing here, you should really check out his two books on cinema and especially his latest, Cinematic States, in which he travels throughout his adopted homeland considering what makes America America through the lens of its movies.