Resurrecting the Country Priest: Approaching the Parish in Film and Literature

The shepherd’s brow, fronting forked lightning, owns
The horror and the havoc and the glory
Of it….

—G. M. Hopkins, ‘The Shepherd’s Brow,’ 1918.

Be they figures truly Christ-like, or those of severe morality or utter wickedness, priests have remained strong symbols within Western imagination and have been variously represented in film and literature. A particular type of cleric—the country priest—had his heyday in the mid-twentieth century, most prominently in Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, published in 1936. Fifteen years later, Robert Bresson, the genius of French cinema regarded for his ascetic style, retold Bernanos’ tale in a simple, quiet film of the same name. In 1962, the intensely prolific Swedish writer and director Ingmar Bergman released Winter Light, a story akin to that of Bernanos’, where a rural pastor struggles with his parishioners as well as his own faith. After Bergman’s film, silence. The country priest disappears as a protagonist.

This period was not short of religious authors. In fact, Catholic writers of the highest caliber worked during this time, from Graham Greene and Walker Percy to Flannery O’Connor. While Greene created priestly characters like the ‘whisky priest’ of The Power and the Glory (1940), and O’Connor did the same with the protagonist of Wise Blood (1952), none were like the country priests of Bernanos and Bresson, or Bergman’s rural pastor. Not until recently has the country priest as protagonist been resurrected, beginning with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, published in 2004, and even more recently with John Michael McDonagh’s 2014 film, Calvary.

These two accounts—each similar in tone or style to Bernanos’ work—have not only seemingly appeared from nowhere, they have garnered high praise, Gilead taking the Pulitzer and Calvary winning best actor, film, and screenplay at the Irish Film and Television Awards as well as the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival. Gilead is an epistolary novel by the dying Reverend John Ames addressing his young son, to whom he hopes to relay a sense of his own life, living in the small town of Gilead, Iowa and serving as its pastor. Not that small towns like Gilead do not still exist throughout the United States, but the fact that Robinson chooses to set this story in the 1950s gives the novel’s world not only credence, but a heavy dose of nostalgia.

While McDonagh’s film (the second of his Glorified Suicide Trilogy) of an Irish priest who is told by one of his parishioners that he will be killed in one week simply because he is a good priest also fosters nostalgia, it is told in the present time and succeeds in doing so most likely because of its postmodern tone. While grappling with issues such as pedophilia, suicide, murder, and adultery, Calvary remains quick-witted, finely balancing the tragic and comic (in fact, McDonagh casts multiple famously comic actors in serious roles). The script persistently comments on itself and borrows from surrounding culture (including references to Diary, Brideshead Revisited, and to Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox in a scene with the local butcher). Moreover, its characters are uncannily self-aware, the town’s doctor quipping to Father James, ‘The atheistic doctor … cliché part to play’ before comically excusing himself to the hospital with the phrase, ‘I have to go kill somebody.’ The priest is surrounded by exaggerated stock characters who nevertheless raise deep questions and embody all-too-real flaws. And it is to these characters, despite their constant antagonisms, that Father James consistently ministers. While films like Bresson’s Diary or even the Horton Foote-penned Tender Mercies (1983) can arguably no longer be made in their original tone, McDonagh successfully revives the parochial tale in a postmodern manner.

Both Gilead and Calvary, regardless of their temporal setting, are arguably successful because, in framing their stories around a relic-like character in relic-like towns, they evoke the mythic. This is abundantly clear in Calvary as it is mostly shot in County Sligo, at the base of Ben Bulben, known otherwise as ‘Yeats Country.’ The massive mountain of Ben Bulben sits majestically in the background of many shots, conjuring a more ancient time. Rev. Ames of Gilead also speaks of his small town as something mythic and ideal. While he tells of his older brother Edward who leaves the Christian faith and the town of Gilead, he jots down for his son that Edward once said, ‘This is a backwater. Leaving here is like leaving a trance.’[1] Rev. Ames’ father, who also leaves his faith, says ‘that looking back on Gilead from any distance made it seem a relic, an archaism.’[2] Yet, Rev. Ames records,

‘I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe.’ [3]

And at the end of his letters and life, he writes,

There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.’ That is a prophecy, a vision of the prophet Zechariah. He says it will be marvelous in the eyes of the people, and so it might well be to people almost anywhere in this sad world. To play catch of an evening, to smell the river, to hear the train pass. These little towns were once the bold ramparts meant to shelter just such peace.’ [4]

Perhaps the truest reason for the rural cleric’s return and the success of Gilead and Calvary, is that, like their mid-twentieth-century predecessors, these priests never shy away from the hardest questions of our reality and absolutely refuse to offer callow, witty, or quick answers to the questions and events that deeply wound us. Diary, Winter Light, and Calvary all deal seriously with suicide, the sanctity of human life, and the incomprehensibility of suffering, Gilead dealing with the tragic loss of life and faith. Bernanos’ priest begins his diary with a resounding diagnosis of the human condition:

My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! …No doubt the seed was scattered all over life, and here and there found fertile soil to take root; but I wonder if man has ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some way like the fermentation of a Christianity in decay.[5]

McDonagh chooses another word for this diagnosis—detachment; the very word used by the insanely wealthy yet depressed and suicidal Michael Fitzgerald, one of the few redeemed characters in his story. It is in the shadow of these problems that these stories show their greatness. Father James, always suspect of clever answers, criticizes them saying, ‘That’s one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn’t actually make much sense.’ Later, in a moving scene where he acts as both father and priest to his daughter, hearing her confession and thoughts on suicide, she asks, ‘Would I have suffered eternal damnation, Father?’ He responds, ‘God is great. The limits of His mercy have not been set.’ While this may initially seem a quick or witty answer, it is something far different. It does not terminate the question, but leaves it open to the mystery and greatness of God and His mercies. Rev. John Ames is equally suspect of quick answers, warning his son of ‘callow or naïve’ responses, advising him ‘against defensiveness on principle. …At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith.’[6] Similarly, at the conclusion of Winter Light, it is not an apology, but a reflection on the life and death of Christ that gives the oppressed pastor new hope. In all of these stories, the readers and viewers are admonished, as in the Rev. Ames’s childhood memory, to see the Eucharist amidst the ashes, and in Father James’s words, not to focus as much on sin as on virtue, of which ‘forgiveness has been highly underrated.’ It is in returning to the character of the rural cleric, himself suffering while ministering to those around him, that Gilead and Calvary revive the sense that, in the dying words of Bernanos’ protagonist, ‘Grace is everywhere.’[7]

 

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (London: Virago, 2005), 30.
[2] Ibid., 268.
[3] Ibid., 130.
[4] Ibid., 276-7.
[5] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, translated by Pamela Morris (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2002), 1, 3.
[6] Robinson, Gilead, 175-6.
[7] Bernanos, Diary, 298.

Article by Kevin Burns

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