Feb 7, 2014

Philomena's Grace of Forgiveness

I've just finished watching - for the second time - the extraordinary film, Philomena, starring Judy Dench in the role of Philomena Lee, the Irish women whose son was sold for adoption by Irish nuns in the 1950's. It's a terrible story and an even more terrible criminal scandal, in that this happened to thousands of young unwed Irish girls, whose babies were taken from them, sold usually to rich American parents for fees of a thousand pounds or more, and all ties and traces to the children hidden, covered up, erased by intransigent nuns. If it sounds as if I'm being melodramatic, the story is just that horrible.

A photo of young Anthony at Sean Abbey:

Here is a photo of Philomena's son, Anthony (renamed Michael by his American adopted parents) speaking with Sister Hildegard at Sean Rose Abbey where he was born.  In the final stages of AIDS, he traveled to the Abbey in hopes of finding some way of connecting to his mother. 

Sister Hildegard denied all knowledge of his mother's whereabouts, even though she knew perfectly well that Philomena was searching for her son and knew exactly how to get in touch with her. And she denied all knowledge of Anthony's whereabouts when Philomena came to the abbey a number of times searching for the answers. The cruelty is almost unimaginable, a dying son denied the  comfort of a few final moments with his birth mother. During Philomena's last visit, the nuns failed to tell her that her son, who had died of AIDS, was actually buried in the Abbey graveyard a few dozen meters from the doorstep. And this was in 2003, a mere ten years ago. As of 2009, when the book written by journalist, Martin Sixsmith was published detailing Philomena's life and search, the nuns, supported by a powerful Church apparatus, were still denying everything. To this day, the church refuses to release thousands of archival records of adoptions in the early part of the twentieth century. 

Three days ago, Philomena, together with her daughter and the actor Steve Coogon, who plays the part of Martin Sixsmith in the film, managed to have a very brief, all too brief, visit with the Pope. You will notice from this short film on the BBC, it was in no way a formal audience, it took place outdoors in St. Peter's Square, and the Pope, while gracious and warm, uttered not a word to Philomena or her companions. In other words, it was the slightest of meetings possible.  Merely a greeting in passing, on the way to more important things. 

There was some speculation that the meeting had been arranged to time with the Oscar race, for which the film is nominated for four Oscars. A bit of silly speculation, but the rumours generated this callous remark from Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi:

The Holy Father does not see films, and will not be seeing this one. It is also important to avoid using the Pope as part of a marketing strategy.

I read remarks like this and I think to myself: What is wrong with these people? The arrogance and hyper protectiveness of the all hallowed institution. So as you can see, my anger and disgust are showing, which shames me a little. Talks are actually underway to facilitate a screening of the film for the Pope, but it's all very secret and hush hush, the communications taking place between the film's producer, Harvey Weinstein and a Swiss intermediary. One can only weep at the high comedy of this situation. 

Philomena has said that she has forgiven everyone involved in her case, especially Sister Hildegard who played such a villainous role in the affair over a fifty year period. At one point, Philomena was bitter and angry and lost 'a little bit' of her faith and stopped going to Mass. But she resumed Mass attendance and found within herself the grace to forgive, saying, "I couldn't hold a grudge all these years, I have forgiven everyone." 

Steve Coogan told the Pope, "Philomena is a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation and that although she is an ordinary woman she did an extraordinary thing." To which the Pope merely smiled, gracious and warm to be sure, but mute, with many nervous, twitchy attendants surrounding him on all sides, clearly nervous about moving him on and out of the scene. Nonetheless, Pope Francis does radiate an uncommon goodness and sincerity. But how far can such gentleness go in combating the many terrible ongoing abuses within the Catholic Church? To quote from one commentator:

It's all well and good that this Pope comes across as someone you could hug and have a pint with, and I welcome his rhetoric, but so far, that's all it's been....

I find Philomena's forgiving attitude admirable and inspiring, but she is a better person than I am. My anger continues and I feel no interior call to return to regular Church services. Rather, I feel enormous gratitude to the Lord for having led me outside the doors of the institution, where my faith continues to burn brightly, but without the burden of involvement with the institution itself. We each have our place and peace of heart for myself is clearly found 'outside the door.' Thanks be to God. Freed at last. 

However, returning to the theme of forgiveness, this  should not mean forgetting, and as we can see from the portrait of Jesus in the gospels, there is a place for righteous anger. The Church will never change its behaviour and its deplorable, ongoing coverups unless people get angry, cease to fear the institution, and hold it to accountability. As a spokesperson for the organization Adoption Ireland said,

The Irish government and the church will keep a lid on information about illegal adoption and tracing rights unless more and more people use their voice.

Finally, the meeting was clearly a great grace for Philomena herself. She claimed that she felt such relief at 'being forgiven at last' for her sins of the past. One can only marvel at such an attitude. When asked if she didn't feel it was the  Church itself that was in need of forgiveness and not herself, she simply looked pensive and turned away. 

Finally, the film itself is a gem because it tells this terrible tale not with heavy melodrama, but with wit and humor and a lightness of touch - which makes the pathos and poignancy of the tale all that more clearly felt. It has its critics, of course, not surprisingly the representatives of the Abbey of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary where Philomena and Anthony stayed:

"We do feel that the film, even though it is not a documentary, does not tell the whole truth and in many ways is very misleading,"

In other words, 'there will be no apology from us'. What is one to do in the face of such intransigence. One painful lesson to be learned is that such attitudes are so entrenched, the institution will not reform itself, but must be forced to be held to standards of decency and accountability. Perhaps this is the overall lesson imparted by history and grace through these many unfolding scandals. The institution itself, which a channel of grace for many, is also a conduit of evil and must not be turned into a sacred idol. Caution, critical distance, careful discernment, and the refusal to be cowed. 

And on another front, this may seem like a bizarre right turn, deserving of another posting, but I  finished watching the inspiring 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman.

It dramatises the truly inspiring story of Gladys Aylward, the heroic English woman who went to China on her own in 1930, because she felt God's call to come to the country as a missionary, even though the China Missionary Society refused to  sponsor her, deeming her unqualified. But with unbounded faith and trust in the God who was guiding her, Gladys made her way to China alone, overcoming many obstacles on the way, including a thousand mile train ride across Russia into Siberia, and a three day walk through a blizzard alone, in which she almost died. She became an integral part of the culture,  a renowned humanitarian, renounced her British citizenship and become a citizen of China.  Her fearless faith in the face of so many formidable obstacles is reminiscent of the greatest saints of the Catholic tradition, and St. Teresa of Avila immediately comes to mind. Gladys risked her life many times to help those in need. When Gladys felt her interior calls, nothing would stop her, not even mountains of obstacles, which she merely took as God's good way of trying her faith until 'his' moment would arrive. When war broke out with the Japanese, Gladys led a band of 100 children through a hazardous treck over  the mountains of Northern China to safety and freedom, while being wounded herself. This is just a brief summary of the life of this extraordinary woman of faith and inspiration. In watching the film, it was clear to me that in Catholic terms, Gladys was a canonizable saint of truly great proportions, though thank the Lord for her, the Protestants do not elevate their inspirational persons in quite the same way, putting them on pedestals. But here is a story of grace and inspiration, flourishing within another Christian denomination, demonstrating so clearly that the Spirit does not take sides, and no institutional framework for Christianity should be elevated into a sacred idol. Institutional frameworks of some sort are necessary for the handing on of tradition, but when they rigidify and become absolutized, they lead to corruption. Caution, distance, careful discernment. 

Philomena Lee and Gladys Aylward, two women of faith and inspiration, led by the Spirit to offer very different witnesses of grace and reconciliation. 


Frank said...

There are too many sad commentaries on the Catholic Church - as stories such as Philomena's see the light of day. How this woman can work through her anger to forgiveness and maintain her faith is remarkable. I think many young people don't even bother getting angry, they now just laugh and walk away.

Jayden Cameron said...

Well, that sounds like a healthy reaction, laughter instead of anger - at least for oneself, and there are spiritual alternatives out there beyond the major institutions. But the CC is still capable of great harm, that's the thing, especially towards LGBT people around the globe and in such hot spots as Africa - not to mention the pernicious influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

William D. Lindsey said...

Jayden, this is a beautiful review. For me, too, the film made me struggle with questions of forgiveness--of widening my heart. Your phrase for what the nuns did to Philomena and her son Anthony as she searched for each other--"unimaginable cruelty"--is exactly what I felt as I watched the movie. And, as you say, they continued denying information to her, even about the fact that her son was buried right outside the door, up to 2003. None of this occurred in the Dark Ages!

I had not seen the photo of Anthony that you post in this review. It makes the story all the more heart-wrenching for me.

Jayden Cameron said...

Thanks, Bill. And it still goes on, that is the sad thing. But Philomena's story as well as her personal witness are both a sign of grace for the church, in my opinion, and a call for repentance. I just hope this call is answered in a timely fashion. Signs of the times.