"Amen", "Brooklyn", "Going My Way", "Habemus Papam", "Popess Joan", "Preacher", "Ryan's Daughter", "Sex and the City", "The Apostle", "The Bells of St Mary's", "The Borgia", "The Exorcist", "The Name of the Rose", "The Night of the Hunter", "The Thorn Birds", "The Winter of 1954", "The Young Pope", Abbé Pierre, Anthony Quinn, Barry O'Sullivan, Bing Crosby, Emmaüs, Jeremy Irons, Jude Law, Michel Piccoli, Pederasty, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Duvall, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Trevor Howard
Ministers of religion, Catholic priests, Anglican and Protestant clergymen and women, Jewish rabbis, have all played important and often leading rôles in many films. This is especially true of Catholic priests. Most of my readers are too young to remember the highly popular Father Chuck O’Malley, gifted with both good looks and a remarkable talent as a crooner …, played by Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St Mary’s”. Those were the days – the forties – when priests were idealized (at least by Catholics) as suburban saints, civic heroes and selfless builders of bridges between people and between people and God. Later Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) in “The Thorn Birds” broke new ground in the story of a priest sorely tried by his celibacy, to which he returned after a love-affair which he never really relinquished, but which did not prevent him from becoming a Cardinal.
Then there have been the charming, eccentric, whimsical priests like the ones played by Barry O’Sullivan, as well as other famous celluloid priests like the medieval Franciscan Sherlock Holmes (Sean Connery) in “The Name of the Rose”, the admirable, courageous Irish priest, played by Trevor Howard, in “Ryan’s Daughter” (see our post “Ryan’s Parish Priest”, September 30, 2013), the totally credible, exemplary Irish priest in “Brooklyn”, played by a real priest, along with “Friar Fuck” in “Sex and the City” and Father Damien Karras in the horror movie “The Exorcist”.
More recently we have been treated to a veritable “Paporama” – movies about Popes. After Jeremy Irons in “The Borgia”, playing the rôle of the infamous Alexander VI, after Costa-Gavras’ “Amen”, the account of the failure of Pius XII to denounce explicitly the Shoah, after Anthony Quinn’s 1968 portrayal of a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Cardinal who became Pope Kyril, a charismatic man of peace who succeeds in imposing non-aggression on Russia, China and the U.S. (!), after French actor Michel Piccoli in “Habemus Papam”, the story of the Pope who chickened out of the Papacy, we have had the ground-breaking portrayal by Jude Law of “The Young Pope”, already alluded to in an earlier post (December 12, 2016). Now we can look forward to “Popess Joan”, who never existed except in an 11th century legend which gave rise to another legend about verifying that the Cardinal elected Pope is physically equipped for the job (?). “Habet duas et bene pendentes” is the supposedly final vetting step before the white smoke.
Anglican, Protestant and Jewish clergy are far less present on the silver screen. Three of the most remarkable : Robert Mitchum as the murderous minister in “The Night of the Hunter”, Robert Duvall as “The Apostle” (1998), another murderous, if less psychotic, minister, and the Reverend Jesse Custer in the recent TV series “Preacher” – an outrageous, over-the-top, surrealistic dramatic comedy, based on “graphic novels” (comic-books !), that must have scandalized every living soul in the Bible Belt.
The clergy are very public figures. As a caste, they seem to be the subjects of all kinds of movies, far more than, say, heroic, dedicated doctors, courageous lawyers or humanist engineers. Priests in particular can become icons inside and outside the Church, heroes of humanity even, like the Abbé Pierre, founder of the Ragpickers and the NGO Emmaüs, dedicated to providing housing, work and dignity to homeless men, whose story is told in “L’Hiver de 1954” (“The Winter of 1954”).
Much is expected of Men of God. A stain on a priest’s alb is far more visible than one on a businessman’s suit. Pederasty is not only a crime but in a priest the ultimate abomination, a sacrilegious betrayal of trust.
An ex-priest like myself cannot but pity his former, faithful, confreres, stuck in a rôle which many of them find the equivalent of a straight-jacket. They should not allow themselves to continue to be prisoners of the expectations of their flocks. Like all of us they get just one crack at life, which if it were a movie would have no re-runs. Carpe diem, Father, while there is still time, before your life-film reaches “The End”.