What is the lesson of Calvary?


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Poster for Calvary

Poster for Calvary

Poster for Calvary

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you intend to see Calvary — and you should — and you don’t want to know how this spiritual whodunit (or rather, who’lldoit) turns out, read no further.

Last evening I saw Calvary, John Michael McDonough’s remarkable movie about a righteous and caring Irish priest played exceptionally well by Brendan Gleeson. The movie opens with the voice of a parishioner in a confessional informing Father James that he was repeatedly raped as a child by a now deceased priest, and that as a result he will murder him in a week’s time — not because he is guilty of anything but precisely because he is a good man.

Over the week’s course, we discover a Catholic world blown apart by the abuse scandal. The parish, located in beautiful County Sligo, is a grim community of skeptics, adulterers, depressives, and drunks. This being Ireland, there’s no shortage of gallows humor, and there’s also no doubt that Father James is doing his level best to hold things together. But in the end, his church is burned down, his dog has its throat cut, and his life is, as promised, terminated.

The movie’s title makes it only too clear that this is a parable. It is the Passion of Father James — the final week of a man of God who sacrifices his life to make up for the — original? — sin of another. He throws the revolver he has brought to defend himself — his last temptation — into the sea. He is shot on a beach below the headlands that point to the name of the place outside the walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was  crucified — Golgotha, Calvary, Skull. There is, perhaps, a hint of redemption at the end.

Is there a lesson here for a church desperate to put the crisis behind it? Here’s what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in an enthusiastic review for the new Boston Globe journal Crux, had to say:

[I]t’s curious: Amid all the ruin, suffering and unbelief caused by the abuse scandal of the past decade, the witness of a good priest who loves his people can somehow, so often, remain intact.

Or maybe it’s not so curious. One of the truths at the heart of this film is that the sins of the past bear a bitter kind of fruit in the present, in pain, anger, and revenge. Hypocrisy never stays hidden forever. But the opposite is also true: Love also leaves its indelible mark on the world.

Is Father James’ love indelible? I’m not so sure. If I were an archbishop, I hope I’d be thinking more about what could be done to prevent the witness of good priests from being snuffed out by enraged victims of ecclesiastical abuse. As in: Maybe I should step up and demand that the Vatican punish the prelates who did all they could to cover up the abuse and avoid having the guilty priests brought to justice?