Why you should watch “Calvary” after the sex abuse scandal

Brendan Gleeson stars in a scene from the movie "Calvary." Gleeson portrays a priest who is faced with troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. (CNS photo/Patrick Redmond, Twentieth Century Fox)

The director John Michael McDonagh does not think his arresting film, Calvary(2014), portrays much more than a decent man in a difficult position (he is an Irish Catholic priest) undergoing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. He is wrong. That should not surprise. Plato was right to have Socrates remark that artists are often among the worst interpreters of their own creations. St. Paul distinguishes between the gift of tongues and their interpretation. So it is with art.

For my part, I view (and often re-view) “Calvary” as a most poignant artistic representation of how the church should walk—or limp, rather—among and out from Christendom’s ruins.

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The film is set in the northwestern Border Region of Ireland, in a small, almost quaint village called Easkey in County Sligo. Its darkly verdant landscape and gray-layered horizon refract a kind of stark emerald beauty wholly absent from the dull cynicism of most its denizens. The county itself is home to a twice-razed medieval abbey that lives now only in curated ruins.

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We begin the film in a confessional staring at the face of Father James (Brendan Gleeson). A resolute, anonymous voice from the far side of the latticed screen confesses two grievous sins. One is not his, and the other is not yet done. He had been sexually molested repeatedly since age seven. The predator priest is long dead, a corpse whose rot hardly approximates its soul’s. So, the voice continues, his retribution must fall to another—to Father James—and exactly because Father James is a good priest. Innocence for innocence. The penitent will murder Father James, there along the shoreline, on Sunday next.

The film unfolds across seven days. It runs like a series of painted panels limning an irrepressibly mundane and thankless life. But we also start to sense that each day on its own—and the frail schema they together trace—bear an extraordinary, terrible comeliness. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—every dawn heralds fresh encounters with old drama (in all that word’s senses). One parishioner is an adulteress, another a batterer, another an incel, another a rich man. All cynics, all resentful, all profoundly broken and scattered. Father James’s only daughter (he’s a widower) seeks haven with him for a few days; she has grown “sick to death of love,” and wears the wrist scars to prove it.

As he navigates these and many paternal responsibilities besides, it is Father James himself who holds the film together much as he does the parishioners’ lives. The story is his. It is his last week of life. You witness his profoundly interior, silent embrace of a fate not obviously his by rights.

Father James assumes the responsibility and agency of the whole church in this film. Or, rather, he is the church by synecdoche. He comes to respond to the impersonal malice and moral exhaustion that barrages him only by embracing his own Golgotha, his own crucifixion. He will let himself be killed by one so horribly disfigured by the church he embodies. In persona Christi, and so on.

But the faith necessary for this consent is also inspired and facilitated by altogether unexpected actors. This priest first fails, utterly. His Good Friday, unlike Christ’s, moves from depression to drink, then to violence. This priest comes through his own Garden of Gethsemane—a scene in an airport where he is about to flee his fate—only because he borrows courage from the unmoved faith of a French widow whose husband he had administered last rites to just the day before, Holy Saturday. And this priest’s Resurrection takes form in his own troubled daughter’s radical forgiveness of his killer—the last scene.

What is particularly striking about this sequence, though, is that Holy Thursday occurs here on Saturday, the Cross on Sunday, and the Resurrection on an unknown day beyond Holy Week itself. The pitiful, resentful victim, raped of its innocence (the Christian West, you might say), slays the priest on a Sunday, apparently the final blow to Christ’s now mutilated body. Now Christ dies even on Resurrection day, the Lord’s Day. And if the church should embrace Christ’s own Calvary, be it physical death (priest) or a death of the despairing self (the French widow’s undying faith, his daughter’s reconciliation—both lay women, notice), then even a crucifixion on Sunday will prove unable to stifle the Spirit’s power to resurrect Christ’s body, the church—though we know little of how or when.

You don’t get to claim Christ’s body without assuming the punishment it suffered.

But it deserves to be crucified. That, I think, is the necessary and timely lesson of “Calvary,” now more than ever. You don’t get to claim Christ’s body without assuming the punishment it suffered. You cannot claim Christ crucified, except to be crucified with him. You are not his body unless you too “become sin” (2 Cor 5: 21)—especially when that sin is your very own, and which he knew not. You do not remain one of its members without suffering and penance.

Over seventy years, more than 300 priests, over 1,000 victims—and this was disclosed solely by brute legal force and in only one part of only one country. The Lord sent Ezekiel to warn Israel’s shepherds of the coming wrath because they had forsaken their flock to the wild animals (Ezek 34:5); but now you are the feral beasts. How will you stand on the great and terrible Day of the Lamb (Rev 6:17)?

“Calvary”shows us that, in our time, you cannot be a good deacon or priest or bishop or archbishop or cardinal or pope unless you atone for your sins and the sins of all Christ’s holy church. That is the only possible beauty that remains for us—a terrible comeliness. Our only salvation is judgment. “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17).

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A Fielder
4 weeks ago

"I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)

How truly sad is this movie and review. Although I have not seen it, nor do I need to, the theology presented here is painfully not helpful. Even if one does subscribe to a version of atonement theology, Christ is the one who has already made the only sacrifice needed. The possibility that Christ's sacrifice is actual and effective substitution is totally lost here. The genius of Christ's sacrificial gesture is a message to humanity that human sacrifice, blood sacrifice is no longer needed (if it ever was). Yet, because of some deep seated need in the human psyche we continue to crave (innocent) victims to reset the scales of justice. This is to miss the point of Christ's death entirely, Imagine my surprise to learn that Wood is actually familiar with Rene Girard's work.

"But [the church] deserves to be crucified... You don’t get to claim Christ’s body without assuming the punishment it suffered." This is malarchy! The baptized claim to be part of Christ's body because he died for us, not for any other reason.

That said, even though this author's ecclesiology mistakenly conflates the church with the priesthood, the nature of the priesthood on earth is corporate. As long as we continue to believe that ordained ministers are ontologically configured to the person of Christ, the pain of the clergy's sins and crimes will only be magnified and shared by all who wear the collar. According to this one lay woman, we don't need more atonement or innocent suffering, we need systemic changes to guard against abuse.

ELIZABETH MALONE
3 weeks 6 days ago

As Ms. Fielder was uploading her comment, I was struggling to put these thoughts in sensible form:
Like many Catholics whose faith in the Church hangs by a thread, I have searched in vain for a word from any cleric that expresses a horror equal to the moral rot at the heart of the culture which he inhabits. I now realize this is because I hope for exactly what you present in your beautiful review of Calvary. Is there a cleric, high or low, in a culture which has loosed chaos in countless innocent and vulnerable souls—is there a cleric who will take up the cross of ignominy and shame which is theirs to bear? Is there a cleric who will willingly let himself be nailed to it?
There simply is no other meaningful reparation to victims or redemption for the devil’s workshop which we now know has thrived—God knows how long!-- inside the ranks of our clergy.
No. Atonement was not just the business of Christ. Because we are members of Christ’s body and sin is a disfigurement, repentance, reparation, atonement, penance, healing are our everlasting business and part of our salvation. No change will ever be redemptive if it is not preceded by a change of heart. And change of heart is painful. It is like a crucifixion. Just ask St. Paul.
A corporate revamp is a start but it will not begin to touch the heart of the matter. Unless it is infused with a holy empathy and compassion for “the least of us”, I’m not sure any revamp can even prevent future abuse. It certainly will never become the envisioned field hospital. And the wounded will not heal. Historically, empathy and compassion have been poorly valued clerical virtues.
Mr. Wood, your commentary was much-needed poetry and, to me, a point of light in a dark place. I will surely watch Calvary.

A Fielder
3 weeks 6 days ago

I still do not understand how the murder of an innocent man will “heal” his murderer. We should not be encouraging this behavior. Having recovered from PTSD after clerical sexual misconduct, I know that victims fantasize about horrific violence. We have these fantasies so we do NOT need to act on them. People who do not recover will be able to justify anything as if the ends justify the means. (Consider Rodrogo Dutarte who has claimed that he was molested by an American Jesuit as a teen.) We should be praying for conversion and fullness of life not more innocent suffering.

Stephen de Weger
3 weeks 3 days ago

I agree, A Fielder. There has been an event in the USA where a priest, innocent of abuse, was bashed and left unconscious by a someone saying - "This is for all the victims". Sorry, I cannot condone or glorify such behaviour in any way, and I too am a victim/survivor. I have, however, chosen to process my anger and pain through therapy not vengeance. But having said all that, I am an artist at heart, my children are involved in film making and somehow, I also competently get this film and this review. Life's paradoxes, hey! Thing is, my concept of God/Jesus is a very newly different one to that with which I grew up as Catholic. God is not some separate being we ask for help or use to cover up our pain, God/Jesus is now a verb, and action, a being, doing reality = Love. Human Love, sane and unselfish Love. Sounds soppy, but when you mediate on it, it is anything but and it is VERY reality based. Where there is no love, there is no God. So, where there is no love, put love, be love and you will find love/God.

Patrick Nugent
3 weeks 5 days ago

I thought Christ made his sacrifice on the cross to endure the punishment we deserve, so that we don’t have to?

Paul says in Romans, however, that if we die with Christ we shall take with him—and then writes a beautiful and under-appreciated essay that substitutes dying to sin (and how paradoxically difficult that is) for the literal physical death of Christ. The point of his whole theology is that as sinners stretching toward grace we do not have to endure any punishment or suffering apart from the suffering of separating ourselves (or rather, per Augustine’s reading, allowing God to separate us) from the sin to which we are desperately attached.

There is no grace in this review nor in the film—because there isn’t much God in them. There’s no free gift, as Paul calls it. It is of course much too early to be pontificating about grace and forgiveness for the predator priests, in human time anyway; I’m comfortable leaving that to God in his eternal time. But no fantasy or reality of violent retribution will solve any of the problems of the abuse crisis. Again, in Paul’s view, hackneyed though it sounds, the only way forward is repentance and real change. Divine grace is desperately required for those things. Superficial repentance and change will not do, and the work ahead for Catholic laity is to demand real, substantial repentance and real, wrenching, substantial change—but not violent retribution (whether literal or figurative).

Patrick Nugent
3 weeks 5 days ago

I thought Christ made his sacrifice on the cross to endure the punishment we deserve, so that we don’t have to?

Paul says in Romans, however, that if we die with Christ we shall take with him—and then writes a beautiful and under-appreciated essay that substitutes dying to sin (and how paradoxically difficult that is) for the literal physical death of Christ. The point of his whole theology is that as sinners stretching toward grace we do not have to endure any punishment or suffering apart from the suffering of separating ourselves (or rather, per Augustine’s reading, allowing God to separate us) from the sin to which we are desperately attached.

There is no grace in this review nor in the film—because there isn’t much God in them. There’s no free gift, as Paul calls it. It is of course much too early to be pontificating about grace and forgiveness for the predator priests, in human time anyway; I’m comfortable leaving that to God in his eternal time. But no fantasy or reality of violent retribution will solve any of the problems of the abuse crisis. Again, in Paul’s view, hackneyed though it sounds, the only way forward is repentance and real change. Divine grace is desperately required for those things. Superficial repentance and change will not do, and the work ahead for Catholic laity is to demand real, substantial repentance and real, wrenching, substantial change—but not violent retribution (whether literal or figurative).

Martin Begley
3 weeks 3 days ago

The doctrine that Christ had to be brutally tortured and killed to atone for the world's sins should be abandoned as it is a sick concept used to browbeat Church members into servitude to the clergy and others. It also has been one of the psychological tools used by many priests who convinced children that their submission to sexual predation was a payment for their sins that caused Christ's suffering.

Christ's suffering was the result of his courage to preach and practice love for his fellow men and women. In every age, especially now, we need practice of Christ's courage and that should be the eternal message of our Church, not the inane theology of atonement that we have embraced for so long!

The concept that we need to be punished has had other terrible consequences, the worst of which is that so many Catholics believe that if you enjoy doing good work your efforts don't have value. That undermines the whole blessing of satisfaction, an God-given experience that indicates one is acting in accord with God's Plan and you are in Communion with God or, as St. Ignatius would term it, in a state of Consolation. The guideposts of God's way in our lives are our natural talents as these are the tools God has given us to do His work here on earth and the experiencing joy---not euphoria, giddiness, etc.--but deep satisfaction and peace.

Jim Lein
3 weeks 3 days ago

The church can't run from its wrongdoing. It has to admit, confess and make amends.
The problem with this film now--with guns aplenty--is that some may see it as justifying their taking matters into their own hands. With their own guns.

Peggy Frey
3 weeks 3 days ago

I watched this movie after reading your review. I was moved by the daily activities, and small acts of kindness as well as the daily grind of just trying to live his life of this priest, although with somewhat exaggerated situations. The movie gives a very poor message towards the end when the priest got drunk and then went on a shooting spree, and was subsequently shot himself showing all the all the gory details, including showing his innocent dog whose throat was cut. Since the shooter and the daughter were silent at the end, it was up to the viewer to decide whether or not "forgiveness" or sorrow for one's sins was the actual message at the end. Unfortunately the message in this movie(it's OK to shoot an innocent person and kill his dog because all will be forgiven in the end) is a travesty. Recently, in Northern Indiana an innocent priest was savagely beaten up while praying in his church. The newspaper account kept repeating and stressing the priest was innocent and never was accused of sexual abuse. So sad that one is left with the message that priests, innocent of not should be savagely beaten up or even killed! If the church leadership would just start addressing this crisis without hand ringing and with truth (and police their own house internally) this terrible narrative of savage retribution can be avoided or at least minimized. I'm sorry I spent $3.99 on Amazon to rent this movie due to the gratuitous violent theme, which you glossed over in your review.

Stephen de Weger
3 weeks 3 days ago

OK, Peggy, now having read this, I've decided I won't see the film. I really wanted to but the ending you describe, well let's just say I can do without being triggered. Thanks for the warning. Yes, the violence was not included in the review and the ending sort of kills any possibility of a positive theological approach. Did the priest just go mad because he couldn't cope with all the crap in the church these days - that I can identify with. I fear we may see more of this until the church comes clean, completely and compassionately about it's clergy and the demands they are under as well as the crimes they have committed.

Adam Green
3 weeks 2 days ago

First off, sincere thanks to all of you for the most constructive Comment thread I have read in years. Even the critiques were constructive in nature and made an attempt to hear the others in a positive light. Secondly, I would really encourage all of you to see it; if you don't you would be losing out. It does contain violence, but not so much you can't close your eyes a second or two. This films beauty outweighs its violence; another great metaphor for life. I would like to support the author's point too. CALVARY's beauty is that sin is a cycle that can only be broken with forgiveness, and giving forgiveness is often a bit of a death-experience. It does not conflate Church with priesthood, but recognize that the true Church is the accumulation of its members, a naturally sinful bunch. The Church's (its members) must experience crucifixion not out of atonement theology, but because the world involves sin and to face this sin with dignity and forgiveness is the necessary "crucifixion." Well done article. Please do see the film, and ponder with an open mind.

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