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The Best Movie Priests
By Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
Friends and fans of our movie columnist helped select the best movies with priest-characters who exemplify Pope Benedict XVI's priestly ideal.

Q U I C K S C A N

The Person of the Priest
The Mission of the Priest
The Vocation of the Priest
The Lifestyle of the Priest
The Continual Conversion of the Priest
Agents of Change for Us, Too
Creative Characters or Product Placements?
Priests Beyond the Pedestal

Did he or didn't he? Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (not shown) star in Doubt, released in 2008, one of the first films to tackle the subject of clergy sex abuse.
CNS PHOTO/MIRAMAX

When Pope Benedict XVI announced the Year for Priests last June, he wanted it "to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the gospel in today's world." His announcement inspired lists of favorite priest films or priest film characters posted on Facebook and on various blogs.

The film that immediately came to my mind was an old French 16mm film (with English subtitles) that we used to watch as postulants and novices: The Priest and the Devil (Le sorcier du ciel, 1949, directed by Marcel Blistene; not available commercially at this time). The way the unseen devil tormented the young priest in misty black-and-white images was terrifying.

More recent films showing priests and their struggles with the devil in ways that resonate with Catholic sensibilities and theology are The Exorcist (1973) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). Priests became film characters just after cinema was invented in 1895. The first priest—indeed, the first pope—to appear in a film seems to have been Pope Leo XIII in a short documentary by W.K.L. Dickson in 1898 (downloadable from the Vatican Film Library's Web site: www.vaticanstate.va/EN/Other_Institutions/Vatican_Film_Library.htm). And there was a short film in 1910 by director Percy Stow, The Martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

An informal poll I sent out via the Internet revealed that lots of people have definite opinions about their favorite movie priests. Most of these priests are fictitious, though some films portray real priests. Two such real priests are the recently canonized St. Damien (1840-1889), whose ministry to lepers is featured in the 1999 film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, and human-rights advocate Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, in the 1989 film Romero.

I selected five themes articulated by Pope Benedict in his June 16, 2009, "Letter to Priests" to use as a lens to consider some of these favorite films. All of the quotes from St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the French parish priest who is considered the patron saint of all priests, are taken from Pope Benedict XVI's letter as well.

Among all who responded to my poll, the representation of the priest they most admire is one who is realistic and down-to-earth, who struggles and grows, and who is self-sacrificing and prayerful.

The Person of the Priest

"Everything in God's sight, everything with God, everything to please God....How beautiful it is!"—St. John Vianney

The film that was named most often as a favorite priest film is True Confessions (1981). It is based on a novel written by John Gregory Dunne, who wrote the screenplay along with novelist Joan Didion, who often considered the breakdown of American morals in her work.

Father Peter Malone describes the film in his sidebar. Rae Stabosz, a mother, grandmother and retired computer-education specialist from the University of Delaware, writes: "Father Des Spellacy (Robert De Niro) in True Confessions is a favorite of both my husband (Bill) and me. We love the movie, with its depiction of Catholic culture as we remember it from our pre-Vatican II childhoods.

"Father Spellacy is a worldly priest, full of ambition to climb the clerical ladder, willing to compromise and walk the ethical line but not given over to corruption. He takes his vocation seriously, even though he has strayed far from the devotion to the care of souls.

"Father Spellacy loves his brother—a Los Angeles detective (Robert Duvall) who is investigating the murder of a young starlet reminiscent of the Black Dahlia story—but finds him annoying. The young priest thinks throughout the movie that he can keep his conscience clear and his ambitions satisfied, but in the end realizes this interior conflict threatens his spiritual life and physical health. He does the right thing and chooses the better path."

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"There are no two good ways of serving God. There is only one: serve him as he desires to be served."—St. John Vianney

The Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront (1954) is a classic on almost every list of favorite cinema priests. Maggie Hall, a freelance writer from Florida, writes: "If I had to pick only one film priest who really impressed me, it would have to be Karl Malden's fictitious Father Barry in On the Waterfront.

"His sermon in the hatch over Kayo's (Pat Henning) body always moves me to tears. I've often wished I could attend Mass and hear a sermon from a Father Barry who was passionate about social justice and who spoke about it as beautifully as screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote in that scene.

"In his 2009 book, On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York, James T. Fisher features the life and work of Father John M. Corridan, S.J. (1911-1984). Fisher was able to interview Schulberg, who died last year, at length about the screenplay and the real events that prompted the story.

"Schulberg confessed that his great writing for Father Barry's sermons came right from Father Corridan. When Father Barry promises he'll stick his neck out, 'turned-around collar or no turned-around collar,' I've often thought of the courage it would take for a priest actually to commit himself to justice, and I long to hear homilies like this."

"My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back."—St. John Vianney

Keeping the Faith (2000), directed by Edward Norton, is also a favorite among those I polled. Norton also stars as young Father Brian, who is best friends with Rabbi Jake, played by Ben Stiller. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman), who had moved away when they were children, returns home.

Father Brian is very attracted to Anna and turns to his former teacher at the seminary, Father Havel (Milos Forman), for advice: "I keep thinking about what you said in the seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, you should do that."

To this Father Havel replies: "That was my recruitment pitch. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman, it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice you keep making again and again and again."

One of the best films, to me, about the vocation of the priest is Saving Grace (1986), based on the 1981 novel by Celia Gittelson. Actor Tom Conti plays a youthful Pope Leo XIV who one day finds himself happily locked outside of the Vatican. Disguised by a beard, he decides to take a kind of holiday in a remote village, Montepetra (Mount Peter).

He helps a community build a much-needed aqueduct and stave off local crooks. He helps rebuild the parish church and befriends a shepherd (Giancarlo Giannini) who has abandoned the priesthood. The pope's commitment is tested, but he perseveres in humility.

The film is filled with gospel analogies and metaphors where the pope and the people receive mutual saving grace.

"Do only what can be offered to the good Lord."—St. John Vianney

The 1986 film The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé and written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), is also at the top of many lists. Jesuit missionaries in the 18th century try to protect a band of Indians in South America from enslavement and the destruction of their way of life by Portuguese conquistadors.

Paul Jarzembowski, who heads the Youth Ministry Office in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, says: "For me the most inspiring depiction of a priest in film would be Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) in The Mission for three reasons: Father Gabriel is determined to minister and support the South American tribes; he is dedicated to the redemption of a mercenary, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), despite his reputation for violence and the odds that he might not be able to change; and he is so dedicated to peace and to the moral lesson that fighting back does not have to be the answer to conflict and persecution."

For this writer, it is Father Francis Chisholm, played by Gregory Peck in the 1944 film The Keys of the Kingdom, who epitomizes the person of a priest. The film is based on the 1941 novel of the same name by the Scottish novelist A.J. Cronin. Father Chisholm is sent to China as a missionary by his bishop and struggles for almost 60 years to be Christ to the people amidst famine and war.

Father Chisholm does it all with an attitude of dialogue and respect that reflects the theology and spirit of Pope John XXIII, whose pontificate was still on the horizon. The priest—wholly inspiring, compassionate, gentle and strong—assumes the role of prophet.

In his "Letter to Priests," Pope Benedict emphasizes the importance of the asceticism inspired by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience for all priests, not only members of religious orders. Gregory Peck's Father Chisholm exemplifies how these virtues can be lived in daily life.

"A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy."—St. John Vianney

Pope Benedict quotes Pope Paul VI, who wrote in his apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975): "[M]odern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." Benedict reminds priests that to be authentic witnesses requires transformation and continual conversion.

"Father Frank Shore, played by Ed Harris in The Third Miracle (1999), was a man struggling with his faith who experienced a believable, non-salacious but intense sexual attraction to a vulnerable woman," says Rae Stabosz about another of her favorite films.

"Father Shore did not exploit her, nor did he join her in abandonment of his priestly vocation. He drank to excess and he sought the Sacrament of Confession for the grace to change. He represented a Church that embraces the supernatural, but he took a hard-nosed view of miracles. He had a sense of humor, though he rarely showed it, and when he did, it wasn't the precious kind of clerical humor that Hollywood delights in, but the humor of a man."

A film that may arguably be the one that integrates all the aspects of Benedict's hopes for priests and the priesthood as outlined by the themes he identifies is French director Robert Bresson's 1951 interpretation of the 1937 Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne).

A young priest accepts a rural parish but is mocked on every side. He lives an ascetical life as he teaches high school girls about the Eucharist, hears Confessions and makes sick calls. The older priest he turns to for advice lives the life of a comfortable cynic.

The young priest can only eat meager amounts of bread and wine at his poor kitchen table, and we learn he has stomach cancer. He takes refuge with a friend and former classmate who has left the priesthood and is now a pharmacist and lives with a woman. His friend, realizing he is always a priest, blesses the young curé before he dies.

Diary of a Country Priest is perhaps the most sacramental of all films with a priest as the protagonist. The film itself is about grace.

The gift of these cinema priests is for us to see, through the process of filmmaking, how they are transformed and become agents of change for others. It is their ability to change in response to grace—or not—that creates a compelling story.

For those of us watching, these are sacramental moments because invisible realities are made visible on the screen and the spiritual journey is acted out. As these characters encounter God in the narrative of sight and sound, we, too, are invited to encounter the divine in the darkness of the theater or the light emanating from the television or computer. We, too, emerge changed and graced.

When contemplating ways that the medium of film can reveal much about the life, vocation and person of the priest, it is fitting that the Year for Priests concludes on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. These movies and more—new and old—can touch and change hearts through the love and mercy of Christ and make every year a Year for Priests.

Special thanks to the sidebar contributors: the Rev. Scott Young, a Baptist minister and self-described "closet Catholic," and Father Peter Malone, M.S.C., a Scripture professor, current film critic and my co-author of Lights, Camera...Faith!, as well as all those who contributed to this article.

By the Rev. Scott D. Young

A general consensus seems to have emerged among Christians representing most ecclesiastical expressions that popular culture in general and movies in particular do a poor job of portraying the clergy. There are wonderful exceptions, but it is surely the case that priests/pastors are too often depicted as one-dimensional characters and are presented in a negative manner. Even more frequently, the priest is given a minimal role or cameo appearance: mere product placement similar to a soda or cigarette.

Despite the overall impressions, a number of films develop the character of the priest in ways that truthfully exhibit the complex and conflicted humanity and spirituality of religious leaders. Movie priests who are scripted and screened authentically are more available in films than we might guess. These cinematic gems deliver priests to us who struggle and flourish, hurt and heal, succeed and fail, love and loathe, passionately seek God and sometimes suffer with desperation.

Three films that I believe offer credible movie priests: Jésus de Montréal, by director Denys Arcand (1989); El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), directed by Carlos Carrera (2002); and Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley (2008). All three of the central characters exemplify priests who in their personal lives and public responsibilities seek to be faithful to their full humanity and faith convictions. Their clay feet and inner demons are on full display.

Many of the theological and political battlegrounds emanating from Vatican II familiar to most Catholics are featured. These are priests who carry around robust faith and vexing uncertainties. The unrelenting conflicts give rise to occasions for grace, both received and dispensed.

The cinematic portraiture of priests in these three remarkable films convinces me that a careful watching can provide the viewer with a profoundly sacramental experience. The film-watching ritual certainly does not replace attending Mass, but it can give the moviegoer another experience with the Divine.

By Father Peter Malone, M.S.C.

THE PORTRAYAL of priests on screen has undergone a huge change in perspective since the 1930s, when Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien seemed to determine what the movie priest should say and do. Their characterizations were reinforced by Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley in Leo McCarey's Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

I like to call these kinds of movie padres "pedestal" priests because they are romanticized products of the imagination rather than real.

My preference for priestly drama is focused on priests who are personally and spiritually challenged in their lives and ministry, facing these trials with faith and conviction. They are down-to-earth and prayerful, dedicating their lives to sacramental service in the real world.

That is why Robert De Niro, as Father Des Spellacy in True Confessions (1981), is among those on the top of my list. The film takes us into the sordid world of Los Angeles crime and the construction business with its shady ecclesiastical connections in the post-WWII building boom.

Father Spellacy is the chancellor of the archdiocese and is forced to face his conscience. He opts for personal conversion and a life of humble prayer rather than a life of privilege that could be his simply by not asking too many questions.

Another favorite priest figure is Jack Lemmon as Father Tim Farley in Mass Appeal (1984). Lemmon plays a post- Vatican II priest who has come to take his parish ministry for granted and wants to lead a comfortable and secure life. His protest-prone transitional deacon, Mark (Zeljko Ivanek), shakes Father Farley's complacency just as he reaches out to the young man, who is trying to find himself.

During Farley's words to his congregation at the end of the film, he acknowledges how Mark's passion for justice has challenged and changed him. Farley's words still resonate and offer sound retreat reflection material for today's priests.

More recently, I have been impressed by John Hurt's thoughtful and self-sacrificing portrayal of a missionary, Father Christopher, in the 2005 film Beyond the Gates (also known as Shooting Dogs), set in Kigali at the beginning of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.


Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., is the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. She has a master of education in media studies and a certificate in pastoral communications and catechetics. She has co-authored Lights, Camera...Faith!: A Movie Lectionary for the three lectionary cycles (with Father Peter Malone, M.S.C.).


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