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Two of the most troubling issues that confront Catholicism are how to get our sexuality right and where to find the proper balance between authority and license. They are not easy questions. Catholicism today does not do a good job addressing them, nor, we might add, does the world at large.

The controversial movie "Priest" raises both questions. Its power and pain make it a modern passion play.

The film was originally scheduled for release on Good Friday. Whatever the motive, there is a haunting aptness about that initial decision. This is a film about a rush to judgment and a crucifixion. It is about a crowd jeering as a man's life is being taken from him and about a woman who, Pieta fashion, holds him in her arms when no one else will claim him. It is a Good Friday story challenging us to define what we believe the ultimate obscenities in life are, confronting us with questions of what is left when all the initial dreams and ideals are lost, forcing us to state whether or not we can hope for pity and redemption in those moments when we feel most unworthy of them.

This is not an easy film. It is a passion story, raw and naked, assaulting our categories of all that is sacred and legitimate in an effort to encounter what is finally worthwhile in the priesthood: the church and life itself. It is no wonder that the film is controversial. It pits two churches, two spiritualities, two definitions of priesthood against each other.

There is much here to explain.

First, we need to get our sexuality right. If we do not, something about our authenticity and integrity, about holiness and wholeness, is lost.

"Priest" gives us the story of four priests who settle the question of sexuality in four different ways. We need to choose which of these we believe is true and in accord with the gospel. It will not be obvious. The film makes the issues raw, and it sometimes lapses into caricature as it presents them, but it keeps the issues before us, challenging, almost taunting, but always probing.

Matthew, the pastor of an inner-city parish, has been called to priesthood, that is clear, but not to celibacy. We might argue about whether he should have known that before he became a priest, and we might question whether the arrangement he and Maria, his housekeeper, make to live in the rectory is proper.

These questions are incidental to the central issue of whether or not he has been called to be a priest and whether or not he represents Christ to his people in a compelling manner. Maria tells the conservative young priest who comes to assist Matthew and who is offended by the sexual relationship that Matthew wishes to marry her but that she will not allow him to leave the ministry because it will break his heart and wither his spirit.

Does one surrender a priesthood that is God-given and healing to people for a law that came late in church history and that is manmade, in all senses of that word? Does the church lose when people like Matthew resign? Does God, so to speak, lose when commitments, to Maria or to priesthood, are broken by those who abandon the women they love or resign the ministry to which they have been called? Where are the deeper fidelities here? What is the compassionate, human thing to do? Have we divorced the gospel so much from humanity that questions about human decency are seen to debase the gospel?

The unnamed pastor of a rural parish is chosen to rehabilitate Greg, the young homosexual priest, after his life and reputation unravel. This pastor has kept the law and made his decision for celibacy at all costs. He is celibate but there is no priesthood left in him. He is a type we all have known. In presenting him, the film lapses into caricature. The pastor is sadistic, sexually repressed, mechanical. He speaks Latin better than English, communicating in a language no living people use.

To present such a priest is not to say that all priests who are celibate lose their humanity. Nor is it to declare that celibacy cannot enrich priesthood. It clearly does and has. But for many priests, that does not happen. If it did, why would tens of thousands resign? The pastor is dead and yet he is legal; he has no heart and yet he is supported by the institutional church in every way. He has settled his sexuality by destroying his life and by assaulting the vulnerable, especially the sexually vulnerable, whom he envies and tortures.

The bishop represents a third way of seeking to get sexuality right. He, too, is not well-drawn. He is a stereotype, and there is no ambiguity, no saving graces, in his personality. There are bishops who are different, men who suffer with people and, shepherdlike, seek them out when they are lost. The film did not present such a bishop, not because it says they do not exist but because there are fewer of them than the church needs.

The bishop in this film knows the bureaucratic requirements of the institution. He sacrifices his sexuality on the altar of career and promotion. One gets it perfectly when he comes to visit Greg, who has attempted suicide after his conviction for what the law calls, ungraciously, lewd public behavior.

The bishop enters the hospital, pursued by reporters, telling them that we, he, all of us, must be compassionate. He says all the right things, even brings flowers. Alone with the priest, he rejects him savagely, earlier declaring that he is disappointed Greg survived the suicide attempt, demanding now that he get out of his diocese.

This is not a father holding a sobbing prodigal son in his arms but a tormenter who will execute people if need be to preserve his power. Jesus once declared that those who kill the body are less pernicious than those who kill the spirit. The bishop is a soul-slayer, a life-taker, a judge who, as Nazi judges once did, will render any verdict his superiors require.

Some may argue that the fraternity of priesthood does not envision such cruelty. Yet many dissenting theologians, resigned priests, indeed, divorced women in church employment, people who in good conscience disagreed with church policy on contraception, abortion, ordination, papal power -- many of these, many, have been dealt with harshly.

It is in Greg that the issue of sexuality is most controversial. He has to be a homosexual for the film to work; the main protagonist must take sexuality into deeply disturbing and censured areas for its message to be clear. In the beginning of the film, Greg is cold, judgmental, rigidly orthodox. He dislikes Maria, patronizes Matthew, preaches to people a message they neither need nor understand. At this point, he is blessed by the institution, even possibly on a fast career track.

Maria changes him when she tells him she loves Matthew's priesthood more than her happiness, that she loves Matthew more than herself, and, therefore, will not allow Matthew to do what she passionately wants more than anything else, namely, marry her. She tells Greg that while he despises her she is cleaning his laundry, washing dishes and preparing meals.

Greg might have remained celibate, his homosexuality in check, so to speak, had the loneliness of the priesthood not become more than he could bear. The loneliness of priesthood is not the lone-liness all of us must live through if we are to be mature or authentic. It is the loneliness of those who sense that they can never have a life of their own and that their deepest needs as human beings must be denied if they are to function in the system.

This loneliness is not the burden all priests bear but it is the burden many of them do. If they did not, the Catholic priesthood would be in a healthy state. Does anyone really believe it is anymore?

To say this is not to deny that there are many good and happy priests. This film, however, is a cry from the heart asking that truth and honesty terminate the institutional denial. In the name of God, someone must cleanse the rot at the heart of a priesthood Catholics love, a priesthood wounded lethally by ecclesiastical power.

Greg watches Matthew and Maria share a common life. He longs for the companionship he is denied. One night he overhears their conversation and their laughter and he is as bereft as he has ever been. He goes to a gay bar and engages in what he intends to be a one-night stand. The eroticism, however, touches his soul and demands commitment from him.

To say that this happens to Greg is not to say that it happens to all priests. Not all priests are homosexual, most are not. Not all priests find commitment through eroticism, but many people do. Should the filmmaker be forbidden to show that this clearly happens to people, many people, because there are critics who are offended by the reality before them?

The homosexual scenes are graphic, and it is here that the film will disturb most people. I believe the explicitness is necessary to show the physical, sexual experience that brings Greg to a deeper sense of priesthood. Those who are troubled by homosexual or explicit sex might ask themselves whether these are the ultimate obscenities in the film, in life, in the church.

Homosexuality is an ethereal word for many people unless it is rooted in passion and sexual expression. This forces us to declare that homosexuality is perverted or permissible. The film will not let us off easily.

I find "Priest" most compellingly Catholic in its effort to situate the priesthood in sacrament rather than law. Catholics have always had a deep sacramental consciousness. The drama of this film centers around how one evaluates the sacraments of priesthood, reconciliation and Eucharist.

It is clear that the film makes no sense unless one believes ordination is sacred. The title makes it unmistakable that the film has no meaning if priesthood does not. The message on priesthood is hopeful for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The message is simply this: The priesthood holds and people choose it, indeed are willing to give their lives to it and for it, even though it may crucify and break them. As Matthew and Greg become more human, they opt for priesthood even more strongly.

One of the saddest men in the film is an older, alcoholic associate priest whom Greg replaced on his first assignment. This priest lost his commitment to priesthood and is unable to recover both because his priesthood is gone and because the celibacy he has lived has made him realize that the church stole his life from him when it had no right to and when there was no need.

For sacrifice and the cross to matter, there must be no other options. In his case, in the case of many priests, there are. The film begins with this priest carrying a huge crucifix to the bishop's mansion and running it through the window. It is an apt portrayal of a crucifixion demanded when it was not required. The shattered glass is a symbol of the shattered lives the institution sometimes leaves in its wake.

The sacrament of reconciliation roots this story in perhaps its most dramatic episode. A young girl confesses to Greg that she is being sexually abused by her father. She is a sullen, wounded angel whose sexual experience is dictated by her father much as the sexual definitions of priests in this film are settled not by themselves but by a patriarchal institution. It is she who, in the end, embraces the broken priest and rescues him.

This episode is presented with all the force of Dante's Inferno. Her father is a man whose evil is so palpable that it terrifies. His face, distorted by the confessional grille, is as distorted as his sexuality. His face is the face of evil itself.

Greg cannot find a way to rescue the young girl without breaking the confessional seal. He prays in his room for guidance as he has never prayed before. In this Gethsemane scene he weeps and cries out in terror, blasphemy and anger.

The explicitness of this denunciation of God by a priest is as necessary as the earlier sexual scenes. One cannot understand the goodness and anguish of Greg's heart, the passion and depth of his priesthood, the power and need of his love for people unless this scene is as raw as it is. The losing of control for the sake of love is what makes Greg a priest in the fullest sense of the word.

In affirming these qualities in the film, we are not condoning the sometimes aberrant behavior of these priests or other priests. We merely note that many people come to God by walking crooked lines. Why is it we are troubled more by sexual behavior against the rules than by heartless celibacy? Are not both problems? Greg feels remorse; the cadaverous pastor of a rural parish never does.

Sooner or later, all Catholic theology and life, indeed all definitions of priesthood, return to Eucharist. This film contains perhaps the most powerful communion scene I have ever experienced. Matthew invites Greg to concelebrate Eucharist with him after Greg has been dismissed by his bishop, denounced in the press, denied by his parishioners, detained by the police, deserted by the church.

The Eucharist is Matthew's effort at reconciliation between this bereft priest and the institution that needs to love him. It also becomes an affirmation of the priesthood before the doubting and divided congregation. In Eucharist all the sacraments are brought to fulfillment.

As the Body of Christ is consecrated in faith and broken, Greg begins to weep, for the consecration he fears he has lost, for the fragments of a life he cannot put together. He, like Christ on the cross, bleeds from every wound and hears only hate from people whom he needs. He looks for someone, anyone, to convince him before he dies that he has not lived in vain. Matthew asks his congregation to make sense of the crucifixion of their brother, to speak a word of love, to rescue him with new life and Easter hope.

Many walk away. During communion, no one will receive Christ from Greg. He stands alone with the consecrated Body of Christ in his hands. He cannot be a priest unless someone takes Christ from his hands, from his priesthood.

All the parishioners stand in line to receive communion from Matthew only, a priest who is also broken but who has not been legally rejected by the institution. At long last, the young girl whose father abused her comes forward. It was for her that a miracle had been accomplished when Greg lost his faith and found God in the Gethsemane scene where he prayed from the very bones and blood of his life.

The film ends as these two utterly lost souls, whom many would condemn to the inferno, sob, giving communion to each other from all the wounds of their lives. This reverse Pieta has the woman redeem the priest and preserve him from death by her act of compassion and courage.

A half century ago, Graham Greene wrote a powerful novel, The Power and the Glory, about a priest who lost his way. It was a story for a different church, a church before Vatican II. In it, the priest is guilt-ridden because he cannot measure up to the ideals of the priesthood and the church. Sex and alcohol rob him of his priesthood, his sense of consecration and innocence, his ability to see himself as authentic. At the end, his belief in sacraments and his courage lead him to give his life for another.

The Power and the Glory is a story about the power of the sacraments and the glory of the church. Sacraments have the power to function so effectively that God seems almost confined to them. Indeed, priesthood is defined so much in terms of ordination that all else is secondary to it. Analogously, it would be like making far more of the wedding than the marriage.

"Priest" is a post-Vatican II Power and the Glory. Here it is not only the priest who is broken but the church as well. The power and the glory belong to God. Both the priest and the church are rescued by God alone.

An alcoholic priest in Greene's novel disturbed people as now a homosexual priest does. The ultimate scandal, however, is to believe that God is less than our problems and somehow dependent on our sacraments, rules and even good behavior.

The fugitive priest in The Power and the Glory and the priests in "Priests," we should know, are good priests if they love and give their lives to people. All else is incidental and faithless. In both stories, the central priest character knows he is not morally fit to celebrate the Eucharist, yet both are compellingly called by Christ to be at the table. They come to learn that communion is very important but that compassion is much more. And so there are continuities between the two churches.

It is the sacrament of humanity and the people who bring us grace that define the difference between life and death. The fugitive priest in Greene's novel knows this but he still supposes that humanity is not much good without sacraments and priesthood. Mexico, in Greene's story, insofar as it excludes the priesthood, becomes corrupt and repulsive. The world is very little without the church.

In "Priest," however, sacraments take on meaning from the people who receive them. The church is not much good without humanity. Grace abides in people who find their ways to God, even if priests are not there to guide them. And yet priests matter.

In the final scene of "Priest," it is not a priest, as in The Power and the Glory, who rescues a dying layperson but a layperson, a woman, no longer a virgin, who rescues a priest. In this, one sees all the difference between the church of another age and the church of our age. In the priesthood of all believers, anyone, everyone, may be priest when the institution will not ordain or support those who are. This could never have happened in Greene's church.

The sense of duty and responsibility for the salvation of the world is given to priests in Greene's novel. It is the church's business. In "Priest," the housekeeper rescues the young priest (unthinkable in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, especially a housekeeper who sleeps with the pastor); a homosexual lover demands commitment from a priest whose first instinct is to treat him as a casual experience.

The most powerful scene of all occurs in the final moments, as we have said. A young woman, betrayed by her father and crucified on his bed of lust, walks down the aisle to take Christ from the hands of a priest only Christ and hardly anyone else seems to accept. She becomes in that instant a redeemer rather than a victim. It is she who bears the power and the glory.

Better, it is the two of them who make up the church, no one less essential than the other. She is the new church, the new people of God, if you will, still searching for priesthood and church and willing to accept them wherever humanity is not denied, compassion betrayed and Christ marginalized. She could not be fully healed without this priest's literally miraculous love for her; he might attempt suicide again except for the love of people like her who will not let him or his priesthood be destroyed. The priesthood is not only God's work but the work of God's people.

If this is the new church, it is not always a church of power and glory. It is as messy at times as Peter's betrayal and apostolic doubt and the early church's confusion. It is as far removed from glory as a prodigal son and a woman caught in adultery. The young woman, only 14, in the final scene of "Priest" holds the sobbing priest in her arms after he has given her the Eucharist.

Both know how shameful their lives have been. Both know how much they want and need Christ. The young woman, we have said, becomes a redeemer rather than a victim. There is more. She becomes a redeemer because she is a victim. It is the essential story of the cross and of Good Friday. It is a task we have all been given, is it not?
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Catholic Reporter
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Author:Padovano, Anthony T.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 28, 1995
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