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In “Calvary,” One Priest Pays for the Crimes of Another

A clergy abuse victim vows to kill an Irish pastor precisely because he is innocent, in this film that offers an unrelenting examination of sin, forgiveness, redemption.

Sunday, August 31, 2014 4:49 PM Comments (4)

"Calvary” -- a new film, in theaters right now, by the Anglo Irish director and writer, John Michael McDonagh -- begins with an aerial view of Sligo, the Irish county that once inspired the poetry of William Butler Yeats. But in this movie, the rough  beauty of the coastline is quickly upstaged by the cramped, insular world of sin in all its familiar and poisonous forms.

The local pastor, Father James  (Brendan Gleeson), is no stranger to the human condition, and ministers to his damaged flock with care and a bracing dose of dark Irish wit. Sometimes his pastoral advice is spot on, some times not. He became a priest after the death of his wife, and still tends to his troubled daughter. 

 But his world is upended after a penitent enters the confessional  to announce that he will execute the priest, in an attempt to secure reparation for the suffering he experienced at the hands of  a clerical sexual  predator.  The man informs Father James that the priest will be killed precisely because he is innocent of the crimes committed by the now deceased perpetrator. The man orders the priest to meet him at the beach the following Sunday, giving him time to get his affairs in order and prepare his soul for death.

Thus concludes the first Station of the Cross for Father James. And as the pastor moves ahead with his week, we meet his less than ideal parishioners, who are all too preoccupied with their own private hells to bother with his concerns.  The cast of characters includes: the man who beats his wife, the village prostitute, the lonely, porn-addicted bachelor, the resentful constable, and the disaffected banker, who finds that his ill-gotten millions have reaped nothing of lasting value.All of these characters have reason to hate the Catholic Church. The constable, for example, was demoted from a prestigious post after he blew the whistle on an abusive priest.

Viewers will not be  surprised, then, that the exchanges between Father James and his parishioners feature profane language and disturbing subjects that are  inappropriate for children, teenagers and many adults who do not have the stomach to witness a kind of purgatory on earth. But other adult viewers, including Catholics, will be riveted by the  film’s unsparing portrait of humanity, damaged by sin, but also redeemed by the sacrificial offering of the Lamb of God.

Unexpectently, Calvary also stirs our compassion for the lot of modern priests. In the wake of the clergy abuse scandals, they must bear the slings and arrows of a culture that has lost respect for the extraordinary gift of their vocation. And as I watched the film with my husband, I recalled the remarks of the Holy See’s recently retired prosecutor of clergy abuse cases, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta,who likened his decade-long day job to a walk to Calvary. “We complain of the fact that we are singled out for ridicule when we fall short so miserably of the high ideals which the priesthood of the Roman Catholic priesthood still represents,” Bishop  Scicluna observed, during a 2013 address before the Canon Law Society of America. Then, he added, “We realize that the sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy … is an expression of the anti-Gospel, a betrayal of the message of compassion and love which has endowed the fabric of the Church over the centuries with so much sanctity, with so much splendor.”

Calvary approaches the Church's scandals with brutal directness, but it resists the now common practice of scapegoating all priests, while dismissing the immoraliy of others who make no special claims on our conscience. Calvary places clergy and laymen's actions and self-justifying excuses under the same spotlight. 

Yet for all the darkness that accompanies Father James’s solitary pilgrimage, there are also glimmers of hope. A Frenchwoman, whose husband has died in a freak car accident in the priest’s parish, displays a deep unsentimental faith that strengthens Father James during a moment of crisis. Her brief, but critical role in the plot, however, also raises questions about the future of Catholicism in Ireland, for the Sligo parish surely serves as a microcosm of the battered Church on the Emerald Isle. 

Calvary is not for everyone. But those who see it will not quickly forget Father James or his flock.

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About Joan Desmond

Joan Desmond
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Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in Menlo Park, Ca, in the San Francisco Archdiocese.