A film that confronts three provocative Catholic issues - celibacy, the secrecy of the confessional and the role of the parish priest - opens tonight in Spokane.
The movie “Priest” has sparked pickets, protests and boycotts in several cities.
In the film, an older priest has a sexual relationship with his housekeeper and a younger priest gives in to a passionate homosexual affair.
If that’s not controversial enough, the real dilemma comes when one priest learns during confession that a teenager is the ongoing victim of rape. He struggles with maintaining the seal of secrecy or breaking it to stop the abuse.
“Many of the educated people I know and people who are struggling with the church are raising those very issues,” said the Rev. Larry Dunphy, a Franciscan brother who works at St. Ann’s parish on East First Avenue in Spokane.
“I have heard such arguments between priests, between lay people and priests, between priests and bishops,” Dunphy said of the debate over the priest as a social worker vs. the priest as a minister of the sacraments.
The Catholic League, a 200,000-member organization of mainly conservative Catholics, condemns the picture as evil. The league is behind a boycott of the Walt Disney Co., which owns the distributor, Miramax Films.
But an equally impressive number of Catholics, clergy included, praise the movie for delving into the tribulations of the parish priest, the heart and soul of the Roman Catholic Church.
Almost everyone who has seen the movie agrees it does not present a well-rounded picture of the priesthood.
The two main characters, Father Greg and Father Matthew, are both breaking their vows of celibacy while they minister to their poor parish in Liverpool, England. The other priests include a power-hungry bishop, a mean, self-centered parish priest and an unbalanced alcoholic priest forced into retirement.
Two Spokane parish priests, Dunphy and the Rev. John Donnelly, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in the West Central neighborhood, saw the movie at a private showing earlier this week.
They said the issues are real, the discussion is fairly well-rounded, but the film’s conclusions are a cop-out.
“It’s an advocacy for the position that celibacy is wrong, that confessional secrecy isn’t an absolute. I don’t buy their arguments,” said the Rev. John Donnelly, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in the West Central neighborhood. “What I found myself buying was the priests and their struggles.”
The Rev. John Steiner, the vicar general of the Spokane Diocese and pastor of St. Thomas More parish, hated both the premise and conclusions of the film.
“The controversy is what’s selling the tickets,” said Steiner, who saw the movie during a recent visit to San Francisco. “There’s nothing interesting about it. The arguments are old and flawed.”
The movie does allow the public a glimpse of the priestly life most are not privy to see. The priests are shown during many private moments, both sacred and secular. They prepare for mass, do yard work, eat breakfast.
The one thing the priests don’t do - except during one very dramatic scene - is pray.
“I don’t know how anybody can be celibate if they’re not prayerful,” Donnelly said. “Father Matthew’s problem was he did not pray. Nor did the bishop.”
The single prayer scene ends up being a huge plug for the power of divine intervention.
“It was a good example of the kind of prayer that isn’t Our Fathers and Hail Marys,” Dunphy said. “The guy really talks from the heart.”
Father Greg prays about what he sees as the hypocrisy of keeping confessions secret when that allows wickedness to continue.
It’s another topic where real priests disagree with the movie priests’ conclusion.
“As a young priest I remember struggling with the very same issue,” Dunphy said. “If you start trying to decide, in this I can and in this case I can’t break that confidentiality, you will weaken the sacredness of it. Because it’s not just yourself in the confessional, you’re there persona Christi.”
The movie is accurate in its portrayal of a priest’s isolation during times of crisis. He can turn to another priest or he can turn to God.
“Which of your parishioners do you lean on?” asked Donnelly. “We have to find our consolation elsewhere, besides in another human relationship.”
Another truth of the movie is priests are imperfect. Despite their training, their celibacy and their divine calling, they fail on both a large and small scale.
“I think we call it original sin in the Catholic doctrine,” Steiner said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: What priests say The Rev. John Donnelly, pastor of St. Anthony Parish, 2320 N. Cedar: “I disagree with all the church-bashing in the script. The problems were accurate, but the church is not the culprit. There are thousands of priests living up to their commitments, in fact most priests are doing just that. You think there’d be a hint of that in a movie about priests. So I don’t buy their arguments. What I found myself buying was the priests and their struggles. Those are real.” The Rev. Larry Dunphy, O.F.M., sacramental pastor of St. Ann Parish, 2120 E. First: “The movie did a good job discussing issues and questions that clergy and others in the Catholic Church are discussing very seriously today. The film takes the cop-out of blaming everything on ‘the church.’ With deeper faith and reflection, people find different answers to those questions. I wouldn’t recommend it for the immature, but overall, I thought it was well done.” The Rev. John Steiner, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, 8112 N. Howard, vicar general of the Diocese of Spokane: “It’s all wounded healers. Some of it is so blatant it’s not even good art. The gay scenes are graphic and it’s not necessary to be so. It’s a made-for-TV movie and it’s not very good. The soundtrack is awful.” - Kelly McBride