One of the most interesting programmes shown over the Christmas period was the film Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village on RTÉ 1.
This documentary told the story of Knock Shrine, mainly through interviews with some of the people involved in that parish. Parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons was a central focus of attention, with one contributor comparing him favourably to Msgr James Horan, pioneer of the development of the shrine and of Knock airport.
The pilgrimage from the diocese of New York, led by the gregarious Archbishop Timothy Dolan, figured large, and there was a strong implication that such pilgrimages were key to the future of the shrine. It’s place in Irish culture was central, but Fr Gibbons didn’t want Knock seen as some sort of last bastion of Irish Catholicism. His vision was infinitely wider than that.
While there were some dodgy superstitious elements (e.g. the idea of burying a statue of St Joseph upside down in the garden to ensure the sale of a house), and while some of souvenirs seemed tacky, there were some strong moments. I was intrigued by the insight into the workings of the Knock Marriage Bureau, as staff sorted through the various applicants – possible pairings were summarily dismissed on various grounds, including age and even size difference.
Most inspirational of all was the ceremony towards the end where people in costume represented each of the 15 witnesses to the apparition, leading up to the dramatic unveiling of the newly commissioned and strikingly beautiful mural depicting the apparition.
Also based in the West of Ireland, the film Calvary, shown on RTÉ on St Stephen’s Day, had quite a bit going for it but many downsides as well, a bit like the flawed humanity it portrayed.
Brendan Gleeson gave a powerhouse performance as a priest in the West of Ireland who is told in the opening and quite crude Confession scene that he will be murdered in a week.
Gleeson’s Fr Lavelle is portrayed as a good man, surrounded mostly by crude and/or vain locals. He goes about his priestly work with empathy and care for his parishioners though there’s little of the support structures that priests usually have in a parish, and most of the surrounding characters are quite off-putting. It was an interesting twist that the priest was previously married and had a troubled daughter.
There were lots of anti-Catholic jibes, especially about paedophile priests, which was a central theme, but one could argue that these came from the obnoxious characters and therefore may not form part of the overall vision and viewpoint of the film.
Themes of forgiveness and redemption were woven into the plot and if anything the film had a very favourable view of the work of a priest.
There was a beautiful sequence where the priest anointed a foreigner who had been fatally injured in a car crash, and consoled his wife immediately afterwards.
The local doctor’s cynicism seemed all the more ugly in this light. There were clichéd and melodramatic scenes (e.g. the pub shoot-up) contrasted with some beautifully filmed scenery, making for an interesting but unsatisfying whole. Its heart was in the right place but a dose of subtlety wouldn’t have gone astray.
I was glad to see Leap of Faith back on RTÉ Radio 1 with a Christmas special. It was a leisurely programme for Christmas morning, with some seasonal music, including a lovely ‘Little Drummer Boy’ instrumental from David Agnew and a group from Trinity College.
Presenter Michael Comyn spoke to army chaplain Fr Paul Murphy on duty with Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights. In the land of Jesus’ birth they carried out their routine duties, attended Christmas Mass, had a charity run and had Skype time with families at home.
I was particularly impressed by an item on modern day Bethlehem, where tourists haven’t been as plentiful because of recurring violence, and where Christians are now about a third of the population.
An icon writer described Bethelehem as looking like a prison because of security walls. She wished it was easier to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a short distance away, but now with erratic permissions and unpredictable checkpoints it could be quite an ordeal.
She hoped that new icons, commissioned for Lichfield Cathedral, would help people to pray and act as powerful meeting points between Heaven and Earth.
Pick of the week
Film: Walesa: Man of Hope
BBC 4, Tuesday, January 10, 10.00 pm
Robert Wieckiewicz stars in this film biography of Polish anti-communist activist Lech Walesa; directed by Andrzej Wajda.
THELMA’S BIG IRISH Communions
TV3, Wednesday, January 11, 8.00pm
Ellie and Cody Keogh who have different feelings towards their extravagant Holy Communion outfits. The Connors sisters see a dress design featuring Our Lady.
The Leap of Faith
RTÉ Radio 1, Friday, January 13, 10.02 pm
Topical religious issues with Michael Comyn.