Father Stu and the Gift of Divine Mercy
After accepting the difficult fate God had in store for him, Father Stuart Long spent his last days as a conduit of Christ’s grace
When Catholic actor Mark Wahlberg poured himself into the role of Father Stuart Long in the making of his new film, Father Stu, opening in theaters across the country Wednesday, he visited Bishop George Thomas, who ordained the former boxer.
Bishop Thomas told Wahlberg something profound. Recounting the conversation to the Register April 4 in Helena, Montana, Wahlberg said, “It’s really remarkable: Bishop Thomas said he knew he was right to ordain Stuart because Stu had done more in the short four years that he was a priest than the bishop had done in 40 years.”
While still a seminarian he was diagnosed with a rare disease called inclusion body myositis, which mimics the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease threatened to derail his desire to become a priest — how would his slowly debilitating body ever be able to lift a chalice while celebrating Mass or conduct other priestly duties?
“When God wounds us, he brings us closer to him,” Father Stu says in the film. A witness to so many people through his suffering, this aspect of Stu’s life struck a chord with Wahlberg, who is no stranger to loss or regret. Reflecting on the death of his own mother during the making of the film, Wahlberg told the Register, “You know, my dad suffered greatly, and my mom suffered greatly. And we all uniquely get to share in that same experience, right? If we’re lucky enough to live long enough, and if we can share in that suffering with a grace and love that Stu did it with, we’ll all be better off.”
Produced and fully financed by Wahlberg, the actor seems to fully inhabit this fighter who becomes determined to become a priest, unfolding a cathartic journey full of grief that ultimately leads to a grace-filled redemption. Edgy humor is also peppered throughout the film, reflecting the core of Stu’s character — he was a jokester, always quick with the quips. Father Bart Tolleson, who was ordained at the St. Helena Cathedral in 2007 alongside Stuart said that this was the way Father Stu united himself to Christ.
“Jesus has risen from the dead. That’s the truth. That's what gives us our identity as Christians. And so, no matter what suffering we have to go through, we unite that with Christ. And Stu was very keen on saying that, yes, if God wanted him to suffer, he would suffer willingly. But he was going to do it joyfully, to give people hope, because he talked about heaven. He said, ‘I won’t be suffering forever. Eventually, I’m going to move on. And, in this, God is doing great things.’ And so he embraced it willingly. And he always kept a good sense of humor and a joy, for the most part.”
Despite some criticism of the film due to explicit language and an R rating, the Diocese of Helena released a statement celebrating the central message of the story: “Bishop George Thomas, who ordained Father Stu to the priesthood, and Bishop Austin Vetter, the current bishop of Helena, agreed; Father Stu — raw and unfiltered, combative and grace-filled — witnesses to the truth that no one is ever beyond the reach of redemption.”
Redemption does not belong to Father Stu alone in the film. The dynamic between Stu and his father, woven brilliantly by screenwriter and director Rosalind Ross, offers an insightful lesson on family.
Ross wrote the role of Bill Long with Academy Award-winning actor Mel Gibson in mind. Estranged from his family, the elder Long returns to help his near-paralyzed son. In one gripping scene in the film, Wahlberg as Father Stu is crawling, dragging his own body to a statue of the Blessed Mother. Gibson’s character enters the cathedral and ultimately helps Father Stu stand as he lies helpless before Our Lady.
Ross told the Register that she hopes the movie will move hearts to conversion “in Stu’s journey, and through the reconciliation with his father. I hope that it can serve as a comfort to people that it really is never too late to try to repair those bonds. It’s also never too late to change. It’s never too late to seek forgiveness, to self-improve, to seek redemption, whatever you want to call it. It’s never too late to do that. We live in a society right now that I think is reluctant to acknowledge how people can change. I think that’s really unfortunate. I think that’s sending the wrong message to our kids.”
Wahlberg also spoke of the deep devotion Father Stu’s father had in caring for his son during his most critical days.
“There are so many messages in the film,” Wahlberg told the Register, but he singled out “that message of the father-son relationship — to see how wonderful Bill was in coming back and really being able to take care of Stu in the time that was most needed, and redeem himself in the way that he did.”
The real Bill Long, a self-effacing man of few words, also spoke to the Register April 4. He didn’t see anything remarkable in the devotion he had caring for his son, not to mention his wife, who was terminally ill around the same time. Long said, “That’s the promise I made” in the sacrament of marriage.
Despite some dramatic liberties taken in the script with the story of Father Stu’s father, Long is proud that his son’s story is now being told. He spoke about the real love so many had for his son, of how people flocked to Helena from around Montana, making the trek to visit Father Stu and have him hear their confessions. “It’s what drew everyone in,” Long said. “People came from all over the state to see him. … And wherever he went, he made friends. It lasted for the rest of his life.”
Thousands did come to see Father Stu during his last days at the Big Sky Care Center. A long line of parishioners and travelers would form outside the nursing home for confession every morning around 8:30.
Father Stu’s conversion also had a profound impact on his parents, ultimately leading both to be confirmed while Stu lay on a gurney, with tears streaming down his face at seeing God’s grace at work in their lives.
Father Stuart Long died June 9, 2014, at the age of 50.
The providence of God does work in mysterious ways. The grace that led Father Stu to follow Jesus Christ, become a priest and accept whatever God had in store for him, ultimately became the greatest gift to all who knew him — a conduit through which a suffering soul could be washed over with Divine Mercy, flowing from the cross of Christ.
The movie is rated R, for language throughout, so viewer discretion is
Alyssa Murphy reported on location in Helena, Montana, at the movie’s premiere.
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