Rorate Caeli

Bernanos, Bresson and McDonagh: Shedding Light on the Catholic Priesthood

 I must confess to being annoyed when people ask me what my favorite anything is:  book, movie, music.  I am annoyed because I am not the type of person that has one favorite of anything.  But if someone asked me which books or films or music have had an important impact on my life, I could definitely answer that question.  There is one book, made into a film, that has impacted my life in a deep way both as a Catholic and as a priest.  That book is George Bernanos’ The Diary of a County Priest and the film based on that book by the French director, Robert Bresson.  When a young man comes to see me to talk about a possible vocation to the priesthood, I always ask him to read The Diary of a Country Priest and then to come back to talk to me about it.  I must say that most of the young men have come back perplexed by the book and by the character of the priest.  That is when I tell them that I will pray for their vocation but that someone else may be more helpful in the process of discernment.

Bernanos surely is one of the great Catholic authors of the last century.  His writings deserve to be known by all Catholics who think about their faith and the state of the Church.  He is a man of deep faith who has no illusions about the presence of the wheat and the tares within the Church in this world.  And Bernanos says more about what a Catholic priest should be in The Diary than in most theological manuals on the priesthood.

It is with this in mind that I offer my thoughts on a film that I saw very recently and that I think is a powerful contemporary meditation on the Catholic priesthood.  The film is Calvary, directed and written by John Michael McDonagh  and starring Brendan Gleeson.  The setting is contemporary Ireland, a perfect setting for asking the question about what it means to be a Catholic priest in a world that is not only secular but also deeply and negatively post-Christian.  The director stated in a recent interview that this film is Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in.  I would not agree with that rather flippant assessment of the film.  For me it is significant that the director who conceived this film saw its relationship to Bresson’s film based on Bernanos’ novel. 

A number of reviewers call this film a dark comedy.  I am not sure what they mean by this, unless they see life itself as an absurd comedy of sorts.  The film is dark, but at its heart there is a light in the person of Father James, the protagonist of the film. But this light is not in the least sentimental; it is a light of strength and reality in the midst of the messiness of human life and relationships that is the arena in which the Catholic priest must do his battle for Christ, for the Church, and above all for the God who is Love.  This priest is intensely aware of his situation:  a man of faith who must witness to Christ amidst a hostile and unbelieving world in a manly and realistic and courageous and loving way.  And he also understands the weakness and the unreality and the silliness and the mediocrity of the Church that he serves and that he loves.  And he understands his own weakness that he struggles to overcome, and he finally realizes, like St. Paul, that Christ’s grace is sufficient for him to do what he must do as a priest.

If I were a bishop I would show this film to all my seminarians and then talk to them about it. It is not easy to watch. But it is not only an antidote to careerism and pietism and clericalism and romanticism.  It is a testament to the essence of the Catholic priesthood as intrinsically related to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  It is significant that neither Bresson’s film of The Diary of a Country Priest nor Calvary include scenes showing the priest celebrating Mass except in passim.  But neither film needs to do this, for both films show the priest as an alter Christus in his very life.  And what each priest in both films experience as they offer the Holy Sacrifice is translated into something startlingly real in how each lives his life as a priest, especially in his relationships with the people who surround him, some of whom who love him, some who hate him, and some who are totally indifferent to him.

For me it is significant that the author of The Diary of a Country Priest, George Bernanos,  and Robert Bresson who made the film of that novel and John Michael McDonagh who wrote the screenplay for Calvary are all laymen.  Perhaps only they could give us a true perspective of the priesthood, for they are not bogged down by the weight of a clericalism that has obscured the essence of the priesthood for a very long time.

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla


P.S. Diary of a Country Priest (1951 motion picture) below (full version, with English subtitles - from a 2012 Rorate post):