By FATHER EUGENE BARRETTE, MS-Commentary | Published January 19, 2006
It’s been two years since we at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Smyrna began our film series, “Holy Hollywood.” I believe some thought that the movies in the series would be explicitly about “religious” subjects—stories dealing with biblical events or personages, saints or holy people or films with “Catholic” issues or settings like the Vatican, popes or heroic Christian exploits.
Some have been. We have shown “The Mission” (about the Jesuits in South America), “Entertaining Angels” (about Dorothy Day), “Stolen Summer” (about a young Catholic boy trying to “save” his Jewish friend), “Bruce Almighty” (a comedy about a human having God’s power for a few days), “The Third Miracle” (about a priest in a crisis of faith and a parish’s desire to declare a local woman a saint), and “Romero” (about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, great defender of his people, especially the poor and oppressed, shot to death while celebrating Mass).
Our December movie was “Mass Appeal,” which dealt with the ministry and preaching role of the parish priest and the issue of the previous background or sexual experience of a young man feeling called to the priesthood. The movie, released in 1984 and based on a play produced a few years earlier, seems like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines.
However, most of the films in the series have not had been overtly “religious.” Fact is, the series fits into my approach to films that went public more than 40 years ago. While a theology student at the La Salette Seminary in Ipswich, Mass., I conducted a film series for the people of the local area, called “Faces of Man.” One of my goals was to help people understand that movies are not just “entertainment” or a form of “escapism.” Rather, movies can be a powerful tool for our spiritual growth.
A good film is an art form that like good literature, drama and TV programs can allow us to have valuable, vicarious experiences. They invite us to “walk in another person’s shoes.”
This is a tremendous help in developing our capacity to develop one of the primary Gospel imperatives: to “love one another as I have loved you.” And one of the ways to do this is to be compassionate—“to suffer with”—like Christ was compassionate.
A powerful movie experience can awaken and heighten sensitivity to other people’s hungers and thirsts, their sense of nakedness, the prisons they live in, the disorientation and fears of being strangers in a strange land, the frustrations and anxieties of being sick, growing old. We need our hearts and minds tuned to these realities if we are to fulfill Jesus’ “bottom line,” if we are to live a true “Gospel spirituality.” This bottom line, this spirituality is spelled out in the Last Judgment scene that Jesus presents in Matthew 25: 32-36.
A good movie enables us to:
– Go places we have never been and may never be able to go.
– Enter the perceptions, feelings, struggles, joys, hopes, dreams, courage, desires and heroic choices of a person of another gender, age, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, social level and historical period.
– Stand near or even crawl into the skin of someone dealing with the trauma of dying, of addiction, of prejudice, of oppression, of the loss of all they cherished and believed in through the violence of war or natural disaster.
– Almost feel, taste and smell life in the favelas of Latin America, the slums of India, the suburbs of an American city, the corporate, university, factory, hospital, farm, monastic world, or the exotic and beautiful settings found around the world that provide peace, serenity and conditions fostering inner spiritual awakening or growth.
– Be invited and welcomed into experiences as varied and numerous as the imagination and artistry of a master film writer and director can create.
Such experiences enlarge our souls, our spirits. They can fill our life-breathing capacity. They inspire. They provide more strings to the instrument upon which God wants to play the music of our individual purpose and meaning.
Because of this, our “Holy Hollywood” program uses movies that speak of the human spirit and how the Divine infuses this spirit, even if there is not the spiritual or religious language attached to the situation in the movie. A major advance in our faith and spiritual development is when we can peel away the surface of what many see as only “human,” secular or even profane, and we begin to recognize the “sacred” that is truly in the fabric of our everydayness.
We choose films that help us to recognize the faces and places where God’s graces are at work and at play or the social and personal obstacles to God’s transformative power in life. Wherever there is life-giving transformation, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Following are some of the films we have used and some of their insights:
– “Life is Beautiful”: the triumph of the human spirit even in the midst of the Holocaust; the tremendous love of a parent; Easter overcoming Good Friday.
– “What Dreams May Come”: possible visions of the afterlife; love that is stronger than death; the power had over children by the people and qualities admired by their parents.
– “Shall We Dance”: the need to find “life” when one’s life seems to have become so “lifeless”; the importance of sharing new life directions with those you love or are committed to; how people who are very different can form community.
– “Spanglish”: the vacuous values of certain levels of society; the often unconscious social and racial biases; a mother’s selfishness and its repercussion on her child, contrasted to a mother’s heroic sacrifice and steadfastness.
– “The Whale Rider”: the experience of a culture completely foreign to us; the heroic and exhilarating quest and success of a young girl’s challenge of a culture and tradition that was strongly biased against women.
– “Shadowlands”: the story of C.S. Lewis; how human love can bring new meaning and true humanness into a life dedicated to, and highly successful in, intellectual, theological pursuits.
– “Rumors of Angels”: a young man learning to cope with death, the wisdom passed on by an older woman to the young man; the need for parents to be very close and sensitive to their children after a parent dies; the continued presence to us of our loved ones who have gone before us.
– “Secondhand Lions”: the delight of seeing the influence two old eccentric men, with tales of their past high adventures, have on a young boy whose needy and wandering mother has “dumped” upon these “uncles”; a woman caught in addiction to abusive men.
– “Tuesdays with Morrie”: the extremely moving true story that shows the wisdom of the important aspects of living from a man who is dying.
Other parishes are using movies to initiate discussions and explore values and faith. One of them is St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville. They are using the three-volume “Lights, Camera … Faith!: Movie Lover’s Guide to Scripture,” by Peter Malone, MSC, and Rose Pacatte, FSP. These books have a movie cited for every Sunday of the three-year liturgical cycle, providing a synopsis, commentary, a dialogue with the Gospel, key scenes and themes, and questions or statements for reflection and conversation. The books are published by Pauline Books and Media, a ministry of the Daughters of St. Paul.
Since the ‘60s, the church has manifested a change of attitude from the days when most writings by the church on movies, guided by the Legion of Decency, were primarily to warn us about the movies to avoid. Now there is a growing appreciation of the media and despite its many abuses, its tremendous usefulness as avenues into worlds to be explored for deeper understanding.
“Holy Hollywood” is a program hoping to help us develop “holy vision,” a vision in which we grasp the bits and pieces of God present in all human life. The vicarious human experiences movies can provide may help us recognize more quickly and easily the good that is around us, may diminish our fears, and may allow us to feel more accepting and loving in our always-in-process, God-created humanity. Our few hours sharing these movies together may help us feel more “at home” in our struggling, messy, broken and beautiful God-given world.
God’s word is broken in many ways. Homilies are given in unexpected places.
“I was hungry—you responded and gave me to eat, thirsty—you responded and gave me to drink … ” And it goes on and on and on.
In a dark room with flickering images, small miracles begin to happen. Ah, the joy of having the eyes and ears of our hearts opened with ever-greater receptivity—with ever-greater responsive capability.
And the first movement of a Gospel spirituality begins to happen. We become aware of needs outside of ourselves. We are no longer afraid. And we say “yes” to the Lord disguised in many surprising ways around and near us.
Father Gene Barrette, MS, is a parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna.