Theology at the movies
By James Tomek, Ph.D
Shortly after attending “An Hour of Prayer for Vocations” led by Father Nick Adam, I saw Robert Bresson’s acclaimed 1951 film, “Diary of a Country Priest,” (on the TMC Channel and based on a novel by George Bernanos) where a humble priest at a small parish keeps a journal of his experiences, which include hostility and a lack of compassion from members of the parish, a questioning of his vocation and prayer life, all while counseling a woman who years ago lost her infant son. He is also battling a serious stomach condition, reduced to digesting only small quantities of old bread and cheap wine with an occasional potato. After trying to get a colleague to return to the priesthood, he dies of a stomach cancer with a rosary on his chest and the words “What does that matter? All is grace.”
I joked with my wife that Father Nick should use this film in recruiting people to the religious life! But, on second thought, maybe this film should be a major part of the curriculum to confirm one’s sense of vocation. I will go through the film, discussing his particular challenges with the parishioners, then his thoughts on vocation from his mentor and doctor with a conclusion on the “success” of his life. It is a story about vocation in general. Did I choose the right one? Can I continue to have faith in a vocation where there is seemingly little compassion?
The priest (in French they say Monsieur le curé or mon père where we would say “Father” only) is not referred to by name. He has trouble dealing with his lower bourgeois parishioners as they complain about him and are stingy in donations and goodwill. His catechism lessons to the young girls are met with derision, even from the one he thinks is the best student. His only attendee at daily Mass is Louise, the governess of the only nobility in the region. We learn that Louise is also the mistress of the Count whose home the priest visits to ask for financial assistance and to offer psychological help to his wife, the Countess, who still suffers from the loss of her child.
He has a mentor, a priest in another parish, Torcy, who is cynical and advises him to keep order and not let the people boss him around. The Torcy priest is resigned to accept his vocation as simply clerical. Doctor Delbende, another advisor, suffers from the same depression. He receives no compassion from his patients and will eventually take his own life.
Our priest is quite effective dealing with wounded souls. In a long central scene, he succeeds in helping the Countess to finally accept the death of her son. It is a complex confession reconciliation scene. The priest influences her to say the Lord’s Prayer in a manner that she resigns herself to her son’s death to the point that, even though still tormented by it, she arrives at a moment of peace. It is the priest’s honesty in this Sacrament of Reconciliation where she sees that he is truly afraid for the death of her soul.
The priest goes to Lille, a city, for a medical consultation. He receives a death sentence – stomach cancer, caused by his meager diet of cheap wine and stale bread. The very foods that he thinks he can only digest are bad for him. That these foods are also consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus at Mass may be a not so wise influencing factor.
At Lille, he does manage to see an old seminary friend who has left the priesthood, and has married, but who is sickly and poor. Before dying, he asks his friend to rethink his vocation and, also, to give him absolution. In this way, our priest helps the former priest to recover some of his first vocation. Is our priest a failure? There is a reoccurring image of him at a gate in front of his Rectory and the noble’s estate. Is it a sign of prison? He says that he cannot pray, but the diary that he keeps is an articulate and prayerful examination of conscience.
The film makes us aware that he is constantly writing down his thoughts. He is a very capable confessor with the two to three people that allow him to enter in extended conversation. We see that he really tries to help those who are broken. He suffers deceptions at first, but then seems to see through them. He refuses to take the advice of the elder priest as he will not resign himself from helping the Count’s daughter, who is filled with hate over her father’s actions. His resignation is not one of quitting, but that of letting go his ego and engaging.
When thinking about our vocation in life, we should see this film. Do we have this priest’s “faith” to continue in spite of all the physical and mental obstacles? When he says “What does it matter? All is grace,” what does he mean?
Grace is that gift that allows us to be charitable when all else tells us to think for ourselves. To me, this movie is really a positive statement about someone who accepts his vocation in the most trying circumstances. I hope that God will treat me the way this priest treats his flock. We need compassionate people to guide us, even when they are weary. Gate images? A prison? I say no. He is opening the gates of our prisons, like the narrator in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” a song about desperate people who need help. At the end of the song the consoler is weary, but sings out to us – “ Right now I can’t read too good/Don’t send me no letters, no/Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”
(James Tomek is a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)