This is the fourth in Rev. Malone's article series looking at films featuring various aspects of the Catholic church, investigating particularly the authenticity of their protrayals of Catholicism. The first installment focused on Of Gods and Men, the second on Brighton Rock, and the third on Black Robe.
By the beginning of the 1980s, films had become franker and more hard-hitting. The first film of note on the image of priesthood was Ulu Grossbard’s version of John Gregory Dunne’s novel about the Catholic Church of Los Angeles in the late 1940s, True Confessions (1981). It does not pull any punches with its opening: a priest collapses and dies while with a prostitute in a brothel. The action then moves to show how the diocese will handle the situation and keep it from the media. Complicates the plot, the central characters are two brothers, the Spellacys, one the chancellor of the diocese, Robert de Niro, and the other, a detective, Robert Duvall.
The same issues are to the fore in another important film of the 1980s which critiques the vocation and ministry of priests - Mass Appeal (1985), playwright Bill C. Davis’s adaptation of his popular Broadway play. The priest at the centre of the film, Fr Farley, is played with great insight and feeling by Jack Lemmon. Once again the title is a play on words, this time the Mass.
Fr Farley is in middle age, has been pastor of his middle class church for many years, has grown complacent, pleasantly lazy in his dealings with his parishioners, his sermons rely too much on good food and, especially, drink. He does his duty but his initial fervour has long since receded. While Robert de Niro showed the hollowness of the high flyer, Jack Lemmon shows us the hollowness of the hardly-can-bother flyer. Catholics recognized the kind of priest Fr Farley was, likeable but increasingly ineffectual.
The catalyst for Fr Farley’s faith and ministry recovery is a new and modern deacon, played by Zeljko Ivanek. He portrays the type of seminarian who was entering training for priesthood from the mid-70s. He was an older man than the straight-from-school or college candidate who had been the norm for many years. This new seminarian was more experienced (sometimes including sexual experience) and worldly wise, had had more than graduate education or had held down a responsible job.
Vocation was not just a pious aspiration but something that had to be thought and prayed through before giving up a comfortable life, relationships and career path to begin a lengthy period of study and training. Mass Appeal also shows how the new seminary regime was far less disciplined and restrictive than in the seminaries of the past. There was more solidarity and camaraderie amongst the seminarians. They did not wear clerical garb except at liturgical services. The danger was that the new and older seminarians, fewer in number than in the past, ran the risk of forming dependencies in friendships. It raised the issues of sexual orientation of students and of homosexual relationships.
Mark Dolson is the name of the seminarian, opinionated, outspoken and looked at warily by the rector of the seminary, Charles Durning. Mark is appointed to Fr Farley’s parish for his deaconate ministry. Mark is not impressed with Fr Farley’s seeming laissez-faire approach. Mark’s sermons are fiery attacks on the parishioners’ comfortable way of life that does not go over well with many of them. While he promises to be moderate, he can’t help himself. The same thing happens when two students are accused of a homosexual relationship and are expelled. The rector also wants to expel Mark. This becomes a challenge to Fr Farley who realises what has happened in his own life, fights the rector about the expulsion decision, and tries to show Mark how he could be an effective priest.
The final sequence where Jack Lemmon, who is completely credible as a priest, finds that he cannot continue his Mass until he speaks to the people during what is called the ‘penitential rite’. He makes a true confession about himself, about his relationship to his people, about his failing them. He then takes a public stand for Mark’s being permitted to go on to ordination. In the mid-80s (and the film still stands up quite well and relevantly), Mass Appeal was an idealistic film showing how personal and Church renewal could revitalise priestly and parish life.
It also raised the question of sexual identity more explicitly than the films of the 1970s. It will become far more explicit in the films of the 1990s, especially in the British film, Priest (1995). A homosexual orientation has never been an impediment to ordination (even though physical illnesses like epilepsy used to be). Vatican discussion at the time and since saw a number of officials make statements about ordination of homosexual men being invalid and suggesting documents to state that men of homosexual orientation should not be admitted to seminaries. This is flying in the face of reality and experience. What is required is that any man, no matter what his sexual orientation, is committed to a life of celibacy as a priest.
In 2003, the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom had to face the issue of a nominee for the see of Reading having to withdraw his nomination because he had openly acknowledged that he had been in a homosexual relationship but was now living as a celibate. Soon after, a North American synod voted for a practicing homosexual to be bishop of New Hampshire - Gene Robinson. Since the Anglican Church is an international communion made up of differing cultures and religious opinions, it is very difficult when one part goes against the beliefs of other parts and, perhaps, of majorities. Since the Catholic Church is international, the same difficulties hold for contentious issues like the dropping of the requirement of celibacy for priests, the ordination of women and issues of homosexuality. The films from the 1990s on raise some of these questions quite explicitly.
Rev. Peter Malone (MSC) has reviewed films for the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting and served as President of SIGNIS, an organization of media professionals in the global Roman Catholic church.