May 27, 2014

Chesterton's Father Brown and the tragedy of child abuse

This morning I was looking at reviews of an old British classic film, originally titled The Detective, but later changed to Father Brown, starring Alec Guinness The film is based on G.K. Chesterton's classic Father Brown tales. The star of the film, Alec Guinness, claims his experience of working on the film led to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. He provides this moving anecdote in his autobiography about what so impressed him about the role of the ordinary parish priest in a simple French village. Alas, such simple trust has long since vanished from the world, never to be regained,  as have these long ago days of respect and admiration for the Roman Catholic Church itself. This is the fruit of the hierarchy's terrible mismanagement of the sexual abuse crisis. What is needed is a rebirth and a new resurrection of the church in new forms. The old clerical world is dead.  Time to bury the corpse and move on in trust and joy in the Lord. 

Alec Guinness was walking about the French village chosen for the shooting location, dressed in his clerical garb for the role, when this charming encounter occurred.

I hadn't gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘mon pere!’. My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me. I didn't dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly with a ‘Bonsoir, mon pere’, and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. Continuing my walk I reflected that a church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.

Alas, those prejudices have returned full force in our day and no one can look with such trust at the priest again, despite the presence of many humble, holy servants of the Lord laboring in the vineyard of parish villages. It grieves my aging heart, and one does ache for the terrible loss of innocence. However,  we need to take this as a sign that the nostalgic old days of the clerical caste need to be put firmly behind us, even if the old guard in purple cannot see their way to letting go. Perhaps that is not really their role. It is up to ordinary Catholic folk to lead the way, and the 'leaders' will follow in their cautious, timid fashion. The only dramatic change I could envision at this point in history,  which would begin to restore some confidence once again in the ministry of the church,  is to see women presiding at the altar. Hopefully, these courageous spirit filled women would have the wisdom not to set up another priestly caste of their own. They would certainly give a startlingly new, fresh and creative image to the ministry, one more balanced and healthy than the all male clerical caste, and certainly one more protective of children! Let the mothers be led to the altars. Amen. 

I found this review at Decent Film Guide at IMDB.


M.McShea said...

I have recently done some research on the Archdiocese of New York in the 19th century. That in the 19th century the ADNY went from ten thousand souls and two parishes to hundreds of thousands of the faithful and dozens and dozens of new parishes and newly built churches. That the memory you may have from youth where the local church or the local cleric was a symbol of safety from harm is part of the trickle up energy of immigrants that needed and wanted a secondary social institution to comfort them in a foreign land and culture. That child abuse imho is more of a decadent trickle down energy of elites, culture, mismanaging and out of touch of street reality. That we were probably part of the perhaps unique 1850-1950 century of Catholic growth in America and overlapping with middle class economic growth with spiritual connections. That the white flight to the burbs from the traditional city center after WWII just dumped a century of urban Catholic experience in favor of convenience and access to a mall or 7/11 - and or is a new total cultural experience yet to be gauged or calculated on a historical basis.

Richard Demma said...

Thanks for the historical insight, fascinating. I grew up in a city parish, was baptized in 1953 at the age of ten, then we moved to a small wooded town across San Francisco Bay, to Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, with a beloved pastor, Father O'Brien, who lived in the rectory with his elderly housekeeper. He was rumored to be an alcoholic, according to my father, but he was beloved and trusted for his inherent decency and kindness. I trusted him completely, and still hold him in great affection. It was evident to me as a teenager that Father had a hard life and was living with many demons, but his loving kindness radiated. How times have changed. Trust is now gone, sadly, never to be regained imho.