Oct 19, 2014

Faith, Doubt and Sexual Abuse in Film and Fiction = Amended Reviews

This is an amendation and extension of my previous posting.

In this posting, I deal with three cinematic and fictional treatments of practicing Catholic priests whose faith is profoundly challenged by the revelations of the sex abuse scandal in the Church. I haven't forgotten the Synod on the Family, just finished in Rome. I continue to believe the vacillations over language dealing with LGBT persons was a moment of grace, one of those rare moments when we are given a glimmer of light and (hopefully) the grace to continue onwards in faith and trust in the Lord, who guides the Church in ways far beyond our comprehension. That doesn't take away from or diminish the scandalous fact that the abuse crisis was sidestepped by a Synod dealing with "The Family," and by implication the threats to its integrity in these days. What could be a greater threat than the abuse of its children? And all those men in the Synod hall - some of whom are criminal abusers because of their participation in the coverup and the rest - who may remain 'innocent,' in degree -are nonetheless tolerating, accepting and protecting the criminals in their midst.  This is the nature of the Catholic Church today as its institutional leaders quibble over English words like "Welcome." Yes, the Spirit is truly among us, but so are the criminals. They are us and we are them and that fact must not be forgotten. 

I just finished watching the very interesting, absorbing crime film, The Calling, with Susan Sarandon (the lead) and Donald Sutherland (in a supporting role). Ms. Sarandon is the local police investigator charged with tracking down a serial killer, who appears to be dispatching his victims for religious reasons. As it turns out, his victims are all terminally ill and are willingly surrendering to his 'final treatment,' much like Dr. Kevorkian.  But there is more to the story than just that, much more in this very contemplative examination of faith, death and dying. Donald Sutherland has a brief, but memorable cameo as a kindly, wise Catholic priest who helps Sarandon decipher a Latin clue in the case. As it turns out, however, Sutherland is at the heart of the case. In the past he ran an orphanage for young boys and tried to find them homes. In one particular case, two orphan brothers were sent to his care. He could only find a home for one of the brothers and the other he kept and raised at the orphanage until his maturity. Father Sutherland and his staff didn't ask too many questions of the prospective parents in those days. In other words, they didn't require a very extensive background check. The result of their lack of scrutiny in this particular case was that the boy was sexually abused for years by his adopted parents and eventually committed suicide. The surviving brother? Well, I'll leave that unclear, because I've already given too many spoilers. But it's a very interesting take on the abuse crisis, because I'm sure most viewers would expect Father Sutherland or one of his fellow priests to be the abusers. Not in this case. The film has other fish to fry and does so with an adroit combination of harrowing suspense and deep contemplative calm - which will put off most impatient blockbuster saturated viewers.

At one point, Sarandon asks 'Father' Sutherland "And do you really believe this stuff?" He replies wistfully after a thoughtful pause, with a slightly wearied smile, "I did....yes.....once. But times are different now.  Unwavering faith in the Church is ... difficult to sustain. Perhaps...um...I think quite possibly... with good reason." Sutherland's portrayal is nuanced, gentle, wise and sad and through his character's flickering faith we see glimmers of a deeper hope, if only for brief moments. Towards the end of the film, however, Sutherland recites the Lord's Prayer with the kind of heartfelt sincerity and profound faith that only a great actor can deliver. There is a depth of belief here, and love for the divine mystery, that is all the more mysterious for existing in such a dark night. He tells Sarandon, "Back then, people had a deeper faith." She replies, "Blind faith." He answers, "Profound faith." I should have known that Susan Sarandon would not take a part in an ordinary slasher film. Sutherland is only on the screen for a short ten minutes, but it is one of the most profound characterizations of priestly service and faith in recent cinema history. 

Sutherland's portrayal is matched, if not surpassed by Brendan Gleeson, in one of the outstanding films of the year, Cavalry.  Gleeson portrays a wearied but stalwart Catholic priest in a small Irish village. It is an outstanding  characterization of a Catholic priest of profound, unwavering faith in the Divine, but very little faith at all in the institutional Church he serves.  Gleeson encounters a myriad set of problems in his small village, including the despair of his own daughter whom he fathered as a married man before his wife's death and his entrance into the priesthood. Gleeson also must deal with the scandal of the sex abuse crisis right within his own parish, and the full horror of the Irish scandal hits home. For Gleeson is being stalked by a victim of priestly sexual abuse, who is seeking vengeance upon any priest chosen at random, since, he believes, most victims of priestly sexual abuse were chosen randomly by the abusers. His intent is to kill the priest.  Gleeson turns in a staggering performance  of a man of faith struggling through dark times when God is silent and the lights  in the Church seem to have been extinguished. Yet something remains out of the emptiness and the silence, something that gives Gleeson's character the inner strength to make the necessary and final sacrifice. He goes down to the beach to meet his 'accuser' head on. So good I saw it twice and will see it again. To date, the definitive cinematic treatment of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church - in Ireland or anywhere else for that matter. 

And that in turn leads me to John Boyle's deeply affecting novel examining the Irish Catholic sex abuse scandal through the life of one Irish priest - A History of Loneliness. It is a beautiful, sad book written with exquisite simplicity, economy and grace. I was hoping it would treat the abuse scandal through the eyes of a man of faith similar to the above two examples of Donald Sutherland and Brendan Gleeson. However, Boyle takes an entirely different tack. His narrator, Father Odran,  is a shy, retiring, passive soul, with no real evidence of a genuinely living faith at all. The incidents of abuse Father Odran Yates encounters in his priestly ministry are seamlessly interwoven into all the other aspects of his life, and that is the book's great strength, because it makes the abuse incidents all that more shocking. We follow Odran's struggles to deal with his mother dying of cancer, his sister stricken with premature dementia, his seminary roommate accused of endless crimes of sexual molestation of young boys - while being moved from parish to parish. Most horrifying of all - in a scene that is actually not described, but only hinted at - Father Yates' own priestly vocation began after a moment of sexual abuse. After catching him in his bedroom lying on top of a local girl, Odran's mother invites the local parish priest to have a talk with the boy. The priest asks him, "Are you a dirty, dirty, boy, Odran, are you, are you?" with a lascivious prurient interest that is chilling. He asks him if he has been lying with those 'slutty girls, those slutty slutty girls." Have they been tempting him to abandon his boyish innocence. Then the priest places one hand on Odran's knee with the words, "It's just a bit of fun," and the scene fades out. We don't need to know what follows, but it is all the more horrible for not being described.

Next we see Odran walking downstairs and into his kitchen after the priest has left. His mother, who had recently lost her husband and Odran's father, when he committed suicide, taking his younger brother with him as both of them drown in the sea. greets him with glowing joy, She recounts the news, "Oh thank the Lord, Odran. Father has confirmed my deepest belief. You do have a vocation to the priesthood." Odran understands that his mother needs some 'supernatural sign,' to sustain her religious faith after the terrible suicide of her husband and murder of her youngest son.  And Odran simply accepts the judgement in a rather passive manner and goes off to the seminary, where he discovers the routine life suits him. He becomes ordained and lives a quiet life as a librarian in a boys boarding school, until the bishop one day transfers him to a parish, much to his dislike. There he encounters a young gay boy who comes out in front of his mother in the priests' parlor. He also has several run ins with parents who are outraged that he is found 'alone' with one of their children. HOw times have changed and the priest can no longer be trusted. Occasionally, Odran as the narrator returns to the scene of his early abuse, but only to reiterate that it is too horrible for him to either contemplate ir or describe it. And yet it formed part of the foundation of his vocation - a vocation, as his roommate points out to him at the end of the book - is no vocation at all, but only an escape. This incident of abuse occurs early in the book and the reader is haunted by it all throughout the remainder of the story.  Odran has never developed a mature religious faith in anything, he has simply accepted his life and it's routine passively without question, all the moral decisions having been made for him.

I found this novel, in its understated elegance, to be one of the most devastating indictments of the abuse scandal in the Church one could hope to read, and certainly the most outstanding treatment of the abuse scandal in the Irish Church. I have to say, though, I remained somewhat puzzled by Boyne's authorial choice to use a passive narrator, one who does not act decisively in his own life, but simply lets events and other persons decide for him. This leaves a certain emptiness at the core of the book which I don't think is very satisfying fictionally. Possibly the author is making some sort of statement about the immaturity of faith of a number of practicing Catholic priests. 

One interesting segment of the book, however, deals with Odran's years in Rome as a student, when he is assigned the very prestigious job of serving evening tea to none other than the Pope himself. At first it is Paul IV (just beatified today). And during his term of service, Odran becomes infatuated with a young waitress at a cafe near the Vatican and faces the first real crisis of his vocation. He visits her nearly everyday and there encounters the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani. Boyne is at pains to depict Luciani as a genuinely saintly, friendly, wise and compassionate man, who befriends the young seminarian and advises him on his struggles. When Paul IV dies and Luciani is elected as Pope John Paul I, Odran continues his duties of serving the Pope his evening hot drink....until one fateful evening, having an emotional crisis of faith, Odran misses his duties - for the only time in his tenure. And it is that very night that Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I,  is poisoned, as many of us believe. I found this a very interesting aspect of Boyne's novel, that he subscribes to the 'theory' that Luciani was indeed murdered and makes this such a central event in his young protagonist's life. Father Luciani, John Paul I, is the only decent, genuinely spiritual Catholic figure in the entire book. What is Boyne's message there, I wonder? That the genuinely holy are murdered? Or that genuine holiness cannot long survive within the institution?  Luciani is the only light Boyne as author allows to shine within the Roman Catholic Church of his novel. Interesting. A strange and troubling book, as it indeed should be, given its subject matter. What makes it so impressive is that the incidents and stories of sexual abuse, as I noted above, are woven so seamlessly and naturally into the tapestry of a whole human life, the life of Odran Yates, a boy who never quite grew up into a man and who's path in life was set by a horrific moment of priestly sexual abuse. The finest fictional treatment of the sex abuse crisis I've read, sobering, disturbing and profoundly sad. Unlike the two previous film treatments, there is no profound faith to sustain the priest, Odran Yates, only the memories of the past and thoughts of a life that might have been. Devastating.

We've seen a fair number of films (and books) to date that deal with the abuse crisis from the point of view of the abused, but these three treatments above look at it from the point of view of practicing Catholic priests, whose faith is challenged by the magnitude of evil subsisting within the church. Very interesting treatments. Take a look at this list (as of 2013) of the most memorable films on the subject. I've seen them all. Silence in the House of God must be added to the list. 

More reviews tomorrow of the images of the Blessed Mother in the recent Czech films, Divided We Fall and Muj Pes Killer (My Dog Killer).

Oct 16, 2014

Synecdotal Ruminations and Reviews

The Road Through the Wilderness

It's been a month since my last posting at this blog, and I've been busy immersing myself in Czech culture on a deeper level, especially its past religiosity and its present seemingly atheistic present. I've been plowing through some classic films of the Czech New Wave and some more recent ones that deal with our Nazi and Communist past in Bohemia and Moravia. In these later films, religious iconography feature in striking ways, especially icons of the Virgin and Child and the occasional technicolor print of the vibrant Sacred Heart of Jesus. These images are used to moving effect, evocative, suggestive and a little sad - suggesting as they do aspirations of hope that have never been fulfilled. 

The title of this posting, besides containing a sly wink at the Synod in Rome just over,  is meant to discourage any random internet searchers from 'wasting their time' on my own reflections, which are primarily designed to help clarify my own feelings and thoughts about things. My apologies for being so solipsistic. 

I did read some of the blog coverage of the 'Synod on the Family,' just held in Rome. Much ado was recently made about an interim report using positive and accepting language about LGBT people, including the fact they have much to offer the Church and respect should be paid to their partners and the benefits of a long term relationship. There was a broad range of reactions, from the cynical to the euphoric, with more modest, balanced, cautious views in the middle - such as, from William Lindsey at his blog Bilgrimage, reminding us that such tolerant language has been used before and was in fact the instigating factor for Cardinal Ratzinger's infamous letter on Homosexuality in the '80's, responding to what he deemed a 'too benign' attitude towards homosexuality. Skimming over these views, I found myself feeling interiorly that this 'event' at the Synod was a moment of grace, however partial and slight, and should be welcomed as such with some modest hope and always with the question, "Lord, what must we do?" What is being asked of us as Christians/Catholics in these difficult times as the Church faces a kind of disintegration.

I was struck by Jerry Slevin's remarks that the positive report's language on LGBT was "too little too late," and that a collapse of the leadership structure of the Church was imminent and no amount of window dressing or 'nicey nicey' talk could forestall it (my paraphrase). And I felt that Jerry is essentially right, yet my own intuition is that a 'collapse' is meant to happen in the providential order of things, though let us hope and pray it is not total, surely not. Yet failure in the light of the cross seems the only way to heal the sickness at the heart of the leadership of the church. Failure of a kind must come before the church can be reborn, so for me both the synod's positive comments on gays, however slight, and what seems to be an imminent collapse of some kind are both moments of grace to be welcomed with courageous faith and trust. However, I'm reminded of an amusing comment Dostoevsky puts into the mouth of his protagonist, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, "Well, if you're going to drag Providence into it, then there's no getting anywhere (in the discussion at hand)." Indeed, Providence and the Spirit can be used as words to justify almost anything. Yet should that prevent us from making these kind of discerning decisions and statements. 

I look with admiration upon all of those stalwart devoted Catholic activists, such as the great Sister Fonseca of Spain or Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, who manage to survive as active participating Catholics within the Church's structures and who feel called to fight the good fight, on behalf of women and gays. But then I think of all of those equally inspiring, prayerful, devoted Christians who have felt 'called in the Spirit' to walk out the door, as their own particular kind of witness. Surely "the Spirit" (there we go again with that word) is gathering all of these disparate movements and currents together and directing them towards some good end we cannot as yet foresee = those who remain to keep the fires burning, those who leave to forge new paths for Catholic/Christian witnesss. Somehow the 'impending collapse,' which I do feel is in some sense inevitable, will be met by all of these positive spiritual currents.

I'm reminded of my aunt Gini, mother of eleven children and grandmother of over 20, a leader in her parish of the Old Mission in Santa Barbara, and a Eucharistic minister for almost forty years. In 2002, she announced to her friends, family, fellow parishioners that she was entering a year of silence and prayer - and would have to drastically cut down on all of her social contacts. At the end of this year of prayer and contemplation, Gini announced (at a meeting of religious women in Santa Barbara in a speech that made it onto the pages of the National Catholic Reporter) that at the end of her year of prayer, she was 'led kicking and screaming out of the Catholic Church.' I'm sure many of her friends and fellow parishioners were deeply shocked and her family surprised. Gini had been such a stalwart support of the Church for so many years that this 'leaving' was a truly spectacular event. It remains the single, most powerful witness in my experience of  an outstanding, prayerful, discerning Catholic walking out the door because she felt 'called,' and not out of pique, anger or frustration or because "I just can't stand it anymore." She felt led in the Spirit to make this most painful sacrifice and to give up an aspect of her religious soul that felt like her own flesh and blood. She made the sacrifice in obedience to the same burning divine Love she had discovered through the Church, that burning Love that was now asking her to walk as a witness against the evils of the Church. She listed three reasons, 1) the Church does not protect Children, 2) the Church does not respect women, 3) the Church is attacking gay and lesbian people. Yet she wanted it made clear that these were not 'reasons' for her decisions, they were simply concrete supports for a decision that was essentially a response to an interior call. Many of us are being so called - to meet the face of the beloved Crucified Savior and the  future of the church on that wilderness road outside the formal structures of the Church itself. If there is a collapse of some sort coming, these are the people preparing the way for the future of the church, in new kinds of witnesses and new forms of community. So we must ask, not only "O Lord, what must we do?" but also, "What do these signs of the times mean?" that so many devout and prayerful Christians are leaving the formal fold of the RCC after prayerful discernment in response to a call. This is not at all the same thing as walking away in disgust or fatigue or despair, giving up and walking out. These people are walking away with both pain and joy in their hearts, doing peacefully what they know they are being asked to do. And that means something profoundly significant.

Part Two of these reflections:

I recently attended a concert at Old Town Square in Prague - at the beautiful baroque Church of the Czech Brethren,  St. Nicholas. The Czech Brethren were founded by a group of reformist Catholic priests in 1920, lead by the very learned and devout Father Karel Farsky. This group had been actively seeking reforms within the Czech Catholic Church for several decades and they petitioned Rome for permission for two simple things: to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in the vernacular language and to allow all 'laypersons' at the services to receive the Eucharistic elements under both species of bread and wine. Needless to say, the Vatican refused their request in the most vivirulenterms. In a way it was more the ruthless manner of the rejection than the simple fact of refusal which decided these priests, after prayer and discernment, that they were being called to break away. On January 19th, 1920, they celebrated the first public mass in Czech and the response from their fellow Catholics was overwhelming. I've always been so moved by this story, as an example of the many ways the Spirit moves and acts in so many surprising ways. A hundred years ago this story unfolded and here we are still dealing with an intransigent Vatican structure. It is time for it to go. I've always felt the holiness of the Czech Brethren Church every time I've visited it or attended services there, though personally I don't feel called to join them. However, they stand as a positive example (over an against the negative signs of disintegration - I guess that caveat is necessary), of the many ways the Spirit is messaging us that the old tribal boundaries are dissolving and are simply not so important anymore. One of the core elements of the Czech Brethren's Statement of Faith, is their belief in the integrity and holiness of ALL the Christian churches, who each give their own particular witness to the mystery of faith in Jesus the Christ.

In 1947, the Czech Brethren began ordaining women to the ministry. 1947! Think about it.

More thoughts to come: time for dinner.