Comment & Analysis

Portraying priests as positive role models

Sean Bean in Broken.

When was the last time you saw a priest portrayed positively on television or in the cinema? The question from a friend of mine struck a chord with me. And, after a few minutes, I had to admit I couldn’t think of a recent example.

It got me thinking about the fact that when I go to the cinema to see a movie and a clerical character is introduced, I slide down my seat a little bit with a prevailing sense of dread about which particular peccadillo or weakness of the human condition the writer will choose to explore with the priest.

Growing up in rural Co. Tyrone my experience with priests was universally positive. I was an altar server from the moment I made my First Holy Communion and was an eager volunteer for more Masses around the time of visits from missioners and solemn novenas.

Common

The men I met as a child had as many peculiarities as the rest of us. Some were grumpy in the mornings, others were perfectionists almost to the point of obsession. Still others were tediously long-winded preachers. But, the one thing all of these men had in common was that they lived their lives for others. To a man, it was obvious to me that they wanted nothing more in life than to serve the people God had entrusted to them.

They had taken Christ at his word and embraced that Christian paradox that losing one’s life for others is the only way to preserve one’s life.

The same is true today. One of the privileges in the work that I do is that I often get invited to address groups of priests. Are they disheartened? Often, yes. Do they feel overwhelmed by the challenges facing the Church? Sometimes, yes. But, that same universal theme remains: a desire to serve to the best of their ability the people entrusted to them.

Narratives

So, where are these priests on television and cinema? Media is so powerful at shaping narratives. In fact, with all the talk about adding subjects to the school curriculum, I’ve often thought that media literacy would be an invaluable tool in helping young people understand how their perceptions and opinions are being formed by the media without them even realising. How, in appearing edgy, the media is, in fact, pushing a cosy consensus where all people think alike.

Broken, a new drama currently airing on British television, has received early positive reviews. I haven’t seen the programme, but my colleague Brendan O’Regan was positive about the early episodes, but is now less so (see page 27).

Broken was written by self-described lapsed Catholic Jimmy McGovern. The main character is Fr Michael, played by Sean Bean. Mr McGovern describes Fr Michael as “a good priest”. The writer was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this week about the programme and asked about his portrayal of the cleric ministering to a deprived community in Liverpool. “I have a lifelong fascination with Catholicism,” Mr McGovern says.

While he admits that he parts company with the Church on teachings around sexuality, he felt the need to show the reality of how priests spend their lives: “up here in Merseyside we have got some marvellous priests…you find them in food banks, they work with the homeless, they work with the alcoholic, the old, the sick.

“They are absolutely amazing priests,” Mr McGovern says.

More of this kind of thing.

 

Crass and tasteless

Some pictures emerged on social media over the weekend of revellers at Saturday’s gay pride parade in Dublin draping their rainbow colours around a statue of the crucified Christ and posing for a ‘selfie’ outside a city centre Church.

It says something about the tone deafness when it comes to matters spiritual that the image of Christ dying on the cross would engender such high jinks.

At the very least, it’s behaviour that is crass and tasteless.

 

Mother Teresa

It’s a sign of the esteem she was held in during her life that St Teresa of Calcutta will always be ‘Mother Teresa’. She knew a thing or two about spending her life for others, even at a time of immense spiritual darkness on her own journey. Reflecting on the mystery at the heart of the Faith she writes: “I have found the great paradox, that you love until it hurts – then there can be no more hurt, only more love”.