Guest ColumnistWhat Ever Happened to Father O’Malley?

Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year for Priests, which began June 19, 2009, to help Catholics rediscover the importance of the priesthood and provide priests with an opportunity for spiritual renewal. As the Year for Priests recently closed on June 19 of this year, it seems an appropriate time to examine the ways in which the priesthood has been represented in Hollywood and film over the years.

From Hollywood’s golden age to the present day, films have depicted the priesthood in myriad ways – some favorable, some inspiring, some comic at best, and some not favorable at all. Some priest characters have been called to exorcize evil spirits, others to be pope; some heroically hid Jews from the Nazis, inspired entire nations and offered their lives that others might live, while others failed – and failed miserably – in their ministry. While somewhat simplistic, one cannot deny that older films depicted priests in a positive and important light much more so than in modern films. However, while some contemporary films present clergy characters that are amass with contradictions and questionable attributes, others provide wonderful representations. Unfortunately, these roles typically are either smaller or appear in less mainstream films than those of the classic era.

With Bing Crosby’s portrayal of Father O’Malley in the classic film “Going My Way” (1944) and its sequel “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), we see a man strong in his faith and convictions. He helps an aging priest struggling with his parish, guides a young woman toward a path of righteousness, and bolsters self-confidence and worth in a young girl who feels lost and unwanted. Similarly, in “Boys Town” (1938), Spencer Tracy portrays real-life Father Edward J. Flanagan, who created a place for wayward boys to live, be schooled and become decent members of society. Father Flanagan is strong, kind and compassionate and believes there is no such thing as a “bad boy,” but rather that harsh circumstances and little sympathy have led them astray.

Another film with a similarly positive portrayal is “On the Waterfront” (1954). In this film, Karl Malden plays Father Barry, a very strong and brave man who does everything he can to help dejected dockworkers overthrow their corrupt mob-run union, reminding all them that Christ is always with them – even when they do wrong or stand by and let evil happen. These three portrayals are not only strong and positive, but also were recognized by the Hollywood community. All three actors were nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Crosby and Tracy taking home the coveted Oscar.

Moving on from the classic era toward the modern one, we see many variances in the representations of members of the clergy. Priests often become limited and minor characters even when still portrayed positively, or begin to be represented in contradictory and increasingly negative ways. Unfortunately, some of these negative representations of priests occur in films in which clergy are lead characters.

One film worthy of examination is “Keeping the Faith” (2000), in which Edward Norton and Ben Stiller play best friends who grow up to become a priest (Norton) and a rabbi (Stiller). On the surface, Norton’s portrayal is a commendable one. He is an affable and intelligent man with a keen understanding of the importance of faith in the community. A homily he delivers even aptly describes how nearly all people of faith feel: “Faith is a feeling that there is something bigger connecting it all, connecting us all. And that feeling is God.” A problem with this film is that Norton’s character also begins to question his vows, believing that he’s fallen in love with a childhood friend (Jenna Elfman). And although he ultimately remains true to his orders, he kisses her at one point and says he could leave his life in the Church behind.

With 2008’s “Doubt,” one might believe they will see a contemporary “Bells of St. Mary’s,” as the film follows the clergy of a Catholic school in the 1960s, depicting their daily lives and the guidance of young minds. But the film takes a dark turn when Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing a young boy. Despite all its fine acting, a significant problem with this film is that the audience never knows if these suspicions are true.

Do contemporary Hollywood filmmakers find such contradictory or negative portrayals of priests necessary? At times it may feel like such. But in truth, there are some shining examples of praiseworthy representations of the priesthood in what may seem like a storm of negativity.

One such film that highlights the life of a strong, upstanding priest is “Romero” (1989). This film tells the true-life story of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) who stood up against government corruption and the killing of innocent people, including members of the Church, in late-1970s El Salvador. Always preaching non-violent resistance, his bravery sadly led to his assassination; but Archbishop Romero’s legacy and moral message lives on. “Romero” is a prime example of a praiseworthy portrayal of the clergy, but a film of which few moviegoers are aware.

A recent example of another lesser-known but positive portrayal is the 2008 independent film “Henry Poole Is Here.” In this film, George Lopez portrays a very kind and patient priest, steadfast in his hope that a depressed young man will regain his faith. Although this film is far from mainstream, like many classic religious films once were, and Lopez’s priest has only roughly 10 minutes of screen time, his character is one everyday Catholic moviegoers can admire and relate to.

Similarly, in two more well-known and popular films, “Rudy” (1993) and “Gran Torino” (2008), we see two admirable men; one is a wise and seasoned member of the clergy, while the other is an idealistic young man fresh from the seminary. As in “Henry Poole,” both portrayals are small roles garnering very little screen time, but they are also extremely important to each respective story. In “Rudy,”  it is Father Cavanaugh who helps the protagonist gain admission to a junior college so that Rudy can have the opportunity to fulfill his dream of attending and playing football for the University of Notre Dame. He gives Rudy guidance, spiritual and otherwise, and even friendship, passing along fine words of wisdom: Hard work will pay off, even when the results are not coming in the ways we think they should.

In “Gran Torino,” Father Janovich, is a supporting character, but is crucial to the plot. In a dark film, he is the moral center – a very brave man willing to put himself in harm’s way when he knows full well that a curmudgeon vigilante (Clint Eastwood) will be attempting to protect a Korean family from a violent gang. Moreover, and quite movingly, Father Janovich and Eastwood’s character work through their differences, with the young priest willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything and that the older man taught him profound lessons about life and death.

Negative depictions of the priesthood, and indeed religion in general, unfortunately seem to be more common in films of the modern era. But Catholic moviegoers can still find positive portrayals if they are willing to look for them. However, the current trend makes me wonder if moviegoers will ever see the likes of “Boys Town” or “Going My Way” again. One can only hope that the priests we see every day in church, the good and kind men who guide us and remind us of the powers of faith and God, will someday – more prominently and more frequently in lead roles – grace the screen again.

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