Ian Harris Otago Daily Times July 25, 2014
On the same day recently there surfaced two very different perspectives on a Christian presence in the life of modern communities, one full of promise, the other searing.
The morning mail brought the magazine of St Mary’s-in-Exile in Brisbane, celebrating five years since two priests and their Catholic congregation marched out of their parish church to model an alternative way of being Christian in our 21st-century world. It is a story of courage, community and hope. In the evening the movie Calvary told of the excoriating experience of a priest in a remote village on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.
The title, recalling the site of Jesus’ execution, suggested this could be another Hollywood blockbuster about the crucifixion, along the lines of Mel Gibson’s gratuitously violent The Passion of the Christ. Thankfully, not so. John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay is far subtler, and in its own way carries an even greater punch through its setting among people of today.
In both Brisbane and the Irish village the priests are good men intent on living with integrity and compassion in the spirit of Christ. In Brisbane this led priests Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick to move beyond the mildewed doctrine and ritual of another era to foster a communal experience that is truly shared and life-affirming.
“A spiritual bond of love and friendship, compassion and celebration has replaced traditional Catholic ritual,” says one layman. And another: “We have changed the liturgical expressions not to be different from those of the Catholic church, but to better reflect the 21st century and our continuing struggle to live the life of Jesus, in all our doubts, queries and limitations of understanding of ‘who – and where – is God.’ ”
In the Irish village, people are still reeling from the scandals of clerical sexual abuse that have shamed the Irish church. Yet all acknowledge that James Lavelle is a good priest – which puts him in striking contrast to everyone else. Indeed, it is his very goodness that leads one of his parishioners to tell the priest during confession that he intends to kill him one week hence. As a young boy he was sexually abused by a priest, his innocence destroyed. Now he wants revenge, which he misconstrues as justice. But there would be no point in killing a bad priest, he says. Only a good priest would do.
This is obviously a distorted echo of the church’s traditional teaching that only the death of a divinely good man could ensure forgiveness for sinners. And sin, as estrangement from good, abounds in the village. Father James tries valiantly to stop the butcher beating his wife, to deter her from finding solace in adultery, to counsel the young man bent on either killing himself or joining the army so he can kill somebody else, to help the man of property detached from wealth, life and family and desolate in guilt.
Quite beyond the priest’s reach are the cynical doctor motivated by “one part humanism, nine parts gallows-humour”, the blatantly promiscuous gay man, the arsonist who burns down the church, the Buddhist publican who takes to James with a baseball bat, the unknown who slits his dog’s throat.
They all delight in mocking the priest’s faith and rubbing his nose in the church’s scandals, though he is innocent of them. He absorbs the derision, visits a serial killer in prison, cares for an elderly writer. He can also be sharp with a greenhorn fellow-priest, and at one point drinks too much when the burden of his role weighs him down. And over all the action lies the haunting threat of James’s murder with which the film opens.
There are softer moments, but even they have a darker tinge. Before becoming a priest, James was married, and his daughter is now a troubled teenager. She is resentful that when her mother died, he left her for the church. So now she says: “I belong to myself, not anybody else.” That is the polar opposite of any sense of community.
Yet amidst the village’s trail of bleak and corrosive relationships, only James and his daughter find moments of warmth in each other’s company. As James says in another context, “Forgiveness is highly under-rated.”
In the manner of a parable, Calvary holds up a mirror to a contemporary community living without the binding virtues of trust, hope and love. St Mary’s-in-Exile puts its effort into making those virtues central in in its common life, and projecting them into the surrounding community. Give me that option any day.