Killing the Good Priest

Faith and Film Friday: Calvary

Editor’s Note: This is the first review in our series, Faith and Film Friday. Read the whole series here.

I had never even heard of the movie Calvary when, in the summer of 2014, my parents suggested going to see a movie about an Irish priest at the local art house cinema. At this point in my life, I had begun praying about a religious vocation, and any film about the priesthood intrigued me. We went to a midday showing of the film, joined by fifteen other moviegoers who made about as much noise in the theater as pious Catholics at a communion rail. Not having seen the trailer for the film, I could already infer that Calvary was going to be a serious production. Without much time to grab popcorn and a beer from concessions (because you can do that in art theaters), the Fox Searchlight picture began to reel. Without pomp and circumstance, the scene opened to the inside of a confessional between the protagonist, Fr. James, and a troubled townsman. Anonymously speaking behind the screen in a hearty Irish brogue, the presumed penitent quipped, “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one, that would be a shock. I’m going to kill you father.”

My eyes shot daggers at the screen. That’s not a confession, why don’t you say something back? Father James was unfazed by the death-threat of the non-penitent, a man who says he was moved to devise his plan due to his experience of sexual assault as an altar boy. After the priest is given seven days to “put his house in order,” the audience is treated to an opening sequence of Fr. James carefully placing the Eucharist on the tongues of his parishioners, feeding his flock of lapsed Catholics in a small coastal town outside of Dublin.

And that’s just the first six minutes. Any thought of leaving the theater to buy a Guinness immediately escaped my priorities.

The opening scene acts as a thesis for the remaining hour and a half of the movie. There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one, that would be a shock. There are already enough reviews for this movie focusing on the theme of unconditional forgiveness and the allusion to the cross of Christ. What I would like to expound on in this review is what it means to be a good priest in today’s society. What did the man in the confessional mean by a good priest?

The film’s writer and director, John Michael McDonagh, shared in an interview with Esquire: “Most priests become priests because they want to do good but they’re not perceived that way anymore. The moral universe has been turned upside down. When we initially discussed it, I assumed there would be more clichéd films coming out dealing with bad priests. I thought, let’s get our film out first about a good priest and all those other films about bad priests can come after.”

Calvary brings up pertinent moral questions in its airtight dialogue. From violence and prostitution, to loneliness and crisis of faith, many contemporary issues that occupy the consciences of Catholics creep their way into Fr. James’s ministry. The audience shadows the good priest in his seven day sojourn as he pays a visit to a woman in an obvious domestic dispute with her lover. Father James also counsels a young man with an addiction, advises a greedy businessman to renounce his assets, and administers last rites to a man in a hospital.

Catholics watching Calvary must wonder: what actually makes Fr. James that good priest the director wants to portray? Is he simply a good priest because he has no personal egregious charges against him? To describe other jobs, you would never say, “he is a good chef because he has not poisoned anyone,” or, “she is a good anesthesiologist because she has not mistakenly prescribed a lethal dose.” Nobody holds someone as good primarily because they forego bad-ness, but because they exhibit something exemplary in their conduct.

Without spoiling the ending, there really is nothing particularly exemplary about Fr. James’s ministry and priesthood. By no stretch of the imagination is Fr. James a modern Cure of Ars or an aspiring Padre Pio. He is so ordinary that the rolling ripe landscape of his parish boundaries only amplifies the cinematographer’s homage to Fr. James’s ordinary-ness. In addition, the film does not shy away from showcasing Father’s many faults—he has an uncharitable tiff with his parochial vicar and possesses drinking habits that mimic those of an undergrad on St. Paddy’s Day. Saddled with his human flaws, we see Fr. James live the day-to-day goings on of a parish priest, but I would hardly call his actions that of a good priest. To put it simply, he is a priest who does priest things: he counsels the afflicted, preaches conversion to the greedy, and most importantly, administers the sacraments. The movie implies that the benchmark for a good priest is one who lives out the bare minimum of his vocation. Shouldn’t we already expect that of any priest? Unfortunately, not anymore.

What the audience has to understand is that Calvary is not simply a dramatic portrayal of a mentally unstable man who has a bone-picking wish to kill a priest. Calvary is a movie about a Catholic community living in the aftermath of an abuse scandal.

The very people Fr. James serves in his small town have lost trust in the Catholic Church. The script references the woes of the Church in Ireland many times throughout the movie, in that the spiritual home that once cradled the Emerald Isle is now the gale of controversy and corruption. Many of the men and women we meet in Calvary have sour spiritual baggage that governs their inclination to sin in specific ways. And Father’s parishioners love their sins. These characters, albeit fictitious, are people we all know so well. What intensifies the second half of the film is how the townspeople parade their airs of irreverence for the Church, making the viewer’s knowledge of Fr. James’s death-threat all the more distressing.

I did not leave that theater in Omaha with a smile on my face, but I did depart with great hope for the future of the priesthood. Watching the film that summer truly gave me something to pray with as I discerned a Dominican vocation, and it challenged me to meditate on the state of our Church. In our day, the Church is not settling for priests who simply have not stumbled in their promise of obedience. Today, priests must work extra hard to regain the trust lost from once faithful Catholics. The Church needs men like Fr. James, men who have a genuine call from God to take on the crosses of their flock and to do their ordinary ministry with extraordinary love. Furthermore, the world needs films like Calvary, which highlight the sanctifying monotony of the daily goings on of a parish priest. I do advise, however, that those who wish to see the movie pray a few prayers in preparation. First, before Calvary begins, pray for those who have been wounded by the Church. Then, with haste, pray for your parish priest after the credits roll.

Next week we will review The Song of Bernadette.

Photo by Kenny Stier

From Dominicana Journal