With The Sound of Music celebrating 50 years since its release this week, my mind goes back to a chilly spring morning in New York City, when the sisters of my Catholic school brought us students to see Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the children play the von Trapps on the big screen at Radio City Music Hall.
Writing out this account not only brings back fond memories, it also illustrates how much things have changed in the Church and the world over the past half century.
The year was 1967, when movies made long public runs, prior to cable and online on-demand options. I was in the fourth grade, soon to receive the sacrament of confirmation. I was thrilled to join my fellow students filing out the doors of St. John the Evangelist School into the bracing early-April air to trudge through the streets and around the lingering curbside snowbanks. The shortest in the class, I was always the leader of the size-order line (before anyone worried about the psychological harm this might cause), following Miss Buckley, who was one of only five lay teachers.
We put on a little show of our own, walking grade by grade across Midtown Manhattan, led by the Sisters of the Presentation, with their long habits dusting the snowy curbs as they went. It was always fascinating to see them outside the precincts of school, church and convent, and I viewed them in a new light, as sacred yet savvy women who took charge in a big city, stopping Midtown traffic as their students scampered across the streets. However much we complained among ourselves about their classroom rules and discipline, in public they were our nuns, and we were proud of them.
After walking about a mile, making sure to pass St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we were cold and tired when we arrived at Radio City. We knew the famous name and had heard of the Rockettes who performed there, but none of my classmates had ever seen a movie in the stately, ornate hall. We bought popcorn and other snacks with the nickels and dimes our mothers had carefully counted out for us that morning and settled down in the hushed darkness.
I will never forget the sense of peace and freedom I felt as the movie’s opening scene scanned across the green Alps and flowing brooks to settle on fair Maria, twirling and singing the title score, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Our music teacher, old Miss Gilgan, who had taught my father, was trying to get us to sing the movie’s songs for the spring play, but our rehearsals sounded nothing like this. It was the first time I remember being in the presence of sheer talent, guileless mastery and God’s gift of beauty outside of the incensed air of Mass. I was a 9-year-old boy in love, not just with the sincere, fresh-faced Julie Andrews, but with the whole idea of public performance and the excellence it demands and calls forth from honest hearts.
Because of this and many other such experiences the sisters led us into, I experienced Catholic education as an exacting discipline as well as a freeing creativity. I never regretted one day of Catholic grammar school and have tried to give my own two sons that same experience, though the tuition is much higher and the sisters far fewer than in my day.
Seeing The Sound of Music with the sisters and my schoolmates was a life-changing experience. It is still my favorite movie, which I have watched dozens of times. When Mother Superior tells Maria that the monastery walls were not built to hide from the world, I get a sense of the courage and commitment involved in discerning a religious vocation. When Maria and Capt. von Trapp stand at night by the pond, the scene illustrates the chaste, delicate and awakening nature of love and the trust and sacrifice it requires. When the captain pulls down the Nazi flag from his home after returning from his honeymoon, I know in my bones there is evil in the world that attacks even the innocence of children — and that good men and women must stand against it, regardless of the cost.
My favorite scene takes place in the monastery graveyard, where young Rolfe, the Nazi soldier who had courted the eldest daughter, finds the family hiding. With Rolfe holding a pistol, Capt. von Trapp bravely approaches and, in a paternal voice, invites him to escape with them, not realizing how much the Nazi youth has changed since Germany’s annexation of Austria.
With Christian crosses surrounding them in the shadowed burial place and the spirits of generations of nuns serving as witnesses, this is clearly a moment of Catholic truth or consequences.
Taking the gun, and looking into Rolfe’s frightened eyes, the Captain says, “You’ll never be one of them.” Just as one would hope to see the conscience of Rolf rise, he turns to blow the whistle, alerting his superiors, who are searching for the family.
It is an enlightening yet heartbreaking scene that told me from the first time I saw it that morning in New York — surrounded by my own nuns and the witness of the Catholic faith they taught me — that this life is made for decisions, some of them for life or death.
It was a lesson well learned as I prepared to receive confirmation the next month, when I received a tap on the cheek from the bishop and made my pledge as a soldier of Christ.
Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good, an initiative by the Knights of Columbus.