Spiritual Wisdom From ‘The Godfather’

COMMENTARY: Unlike the film, the novel, rich in Catholic imagery, puts Holy Communion in the forefront, not baptism.

'The Godfather' novel is different from the 50-year-old movie in one telling moment.
'The Godfather' novel is different from the 50-year-old movie in one telling moment. (photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Corpus Christi is a good time to read The Godfather — the 1969 Mario Puzo novel bears witness to the holiness of the Eucharist. The movie leaves that out. 

Sicily’s Taormina Film Festival will open later this month with a movie 50 years old. A newly-restored 50th anniversary edition of The Godfather will be shown in an 8,000-seat ancient Greek theater. Mount Etna will provide the spectacular backdrop.  

The guest of honor will be director Francis Ford Coppola. At 83, Coppola is not finished making pictures, but The Godfather will always remain his masterpiece, considered by some to be the greatest movie ever made. 

A lot has changed in 50 years. Then, Italian-Americans fought fiercely against the film, afraid that a feature about a Mafia family would reinforce negative stereotypes about Italians. After 50 years of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro taking star turns as Mafia characters, and Coppola and Martin Scorcese making highly-acclaimed Mafia films, the fear of stigma has receded. Indeed, the world’s most famous Italian emigrant, Pope Francis, recently reminded Americans not to forget their heritage, “The Irish brought you whiskey and the Italians brought you the Mafia. Always look at the roots.” 

The 50th anniversary has brought new attention to the film which, while based on the novel, does not follow it exactly. And that’s where the sacraments come in. 

The most famous scene in The Godfather is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) serving as godfather at the baptism of his nephew. Coppola cuts away from the godfather’s baptismal promises — Do you renounce Satan? I do renounce him. — to the murders Michael has ordered of the heads of all the rival families.  

The juxtaposition of good and evil, the promise of eternal life and premature death, the appearance of pious devotion masking punitive violence; it all makes Coppola’s baptism scene — ancient Latin prayers punctuated by a barrage of gunshots — one of the most memorable in cinematic history. 

However, the novel, rich in Catholic imagery, puts Holy Communion in the forefront, not baptism.  

Mama Corleone, wife of the original godfather, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), is a woman of exceptional piety. One of Don Corleone’s henchmen drives her to Holy Mass every single morning. This all strikes Kay — Michael’s Protestant girlfriend — as deeply puzzlingly, even absurd, on a family visit, when she begins to realize that the Corleones are not really in the olive oil business. 

So Kay asks Mama Corleone why she goes to Mass every day. The implication is that her piety is inconsistent with the husband she married. Mama Corleone responds that it is precisely because of what her husband does that she goes to daily Mass. She receives Holy Communion, she tells Kay, so that she might be cleansed of sin and grow in holiness. Why is that important? So that she might better fulfill her mission of praying for Vito Corleone, that his soul “might go up there” and not “down.”  

Mario Puzo, with all the ambiguity that the Catholicism of his characters manifests, knows something about sacramental theology. Holy Communion can forgive (venial) sins, and does unite us more closely to Christ. The pious reception of Holy Communion by Mama Corleone will not alone save an unrepentant Vito, but what more can she do? 

The final scene of the novel has Kay, now married to Michael, aware of his real identity as a brutal gangster, at Holy Mass. She has converted to Catholicism, not because of her husband but because of her mother-in-law. Puzo’s novel makes Kay’s transformation clear in a beautiful closing scene. 

Kay kneels and receives Holy Communion. Now “washed clean of sin” Kay bows her head and prays “the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.” 

In the film version, Coppola concludes in the Corleone home. Michael has become the new head of the crime family, and is honored by the mafiosi as “godfather” like his father. Kay looks on at her husband’s transformation. The door closes on her as the screen fades to black. She will not be part of this new life, she will remain apart from the family business. There will be a wall between her and Michael. Darkness has descended. 

It is a powerful scene, but not as powerful as the Holy Communion conclusion of the novel. Coppola attempted a partial solution, and filmed an alternative ending. Kay goes to church and, wearing the mantilla customary in the 1950s, lights candles for Michael. There is darkness, but also flickering lights. 

In the end, Coppola and Puzo elected for the concluding scene in the house, rather than at Holy Mass as in the novel. 

The novel’s ending was better — and more Catholic. What more can a wife do for her husband — especially a husband who is incorrigibly corrupt — than offer her Holy Communions for his salvation? 

The Godfather is not spiritual reading for Corpus Christi. But it does have some spiritual wisdom.