March 12, 2009

Priests in the Movies

Being an adult convert who had negligible contact with the Catholic faith growing up, the first priests I ever met were fictional ones from TV and the movies. There are many, of course, but three have remained with me over the years: Fathers Merrin and Karras from The Exorcist and the young priest who receives Antonio Salieri's "confession" in Amadeus.

The priests from The Exorcist made a real impression on me when I first saw the movie early on in college. I especially love Father Merrin in this dialogue:

MERRIN: I would like you to go quickly over to the residence Damien, and gather up a cassock for myself, two surplices, a purple stole, and some holy water, and your copy of The Roman Ritual. The Large one.* I believe we should begin.

KARRAS: Do you want to hear the background of the case, first?


Merrin knew the spiritual hazard he was dealing with and was no-nonsense about his ministry of expelling it. He was single-minded about both the danger and the boundaries that needed to be preserved around it. And he died with his boots on, fighting the demons. I love that. I also appreciate Father Karras for his gentleness, his openness to doubt, and most of all for his final self-sacrifice. That is the personal goal of the priest, after all, to conform himself as much as he can to the one sacrifice of Christ.

I have always found these two fictional priests to be inspiring. But now that I myself am a priest, I sometimes think of another, less glorious fictional priesthood: the poor soul sent to extract a confession from the suicidal Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. As the story develops, the young priest is visibly overwhelmed by the theological tragedy Salieri has interpreted his life to be. To encounter people who have embedded themselves in this kind of anti-spirituality is not at all uncommon; there are many who suffer in the grip of an internally woven belief system in which God despises them or conspires against their happiness. And all the while Christ is suffering in them, nailed to the Cross, dying (literally) to save them from the misery they have insisted upon for themselves. And there is something of that spiritual death in all of us.

In the end the roles are reversed as Salieri declares himself the "patron saint of mediocrity." Condemining the poor priest as his mediocre brother, Salieri promises him his saintly intercession as goes forth to breakfast absolving his fellow inmates in the lunatic asylum. As a priest this scene comes back to me sometimes. His ministry cannot even begin to crack the rotten luxury of his penitent's hardness of heart. Even beyond being a waste of time and a scandal to the world, a mediocre priesthood will surely faint before the intensity of spirtual suffering in our world and the depths of its committment to the works of the culture of death.

*Never mind that there was no such thing as a one-volume Roman Ritual in 1973, large or otherwise. Fast forwarding to the present, a new rite of exorcism is now in print which allows the exorcist to choose between expelling demons in the "imperative" style, as demonstrated in the movie, or the "supplicating" style, which asks God to do it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In response to the previous comment, I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on the new rite of Exorcism vs. the old. I've read critiques from some exorcists who do not like the new rite, claiming it is uneffective.