"Mad Men" and the Jesuit Priest
My favorite new TV show (other than "Monster Quest") is AMC’s clever series on corporate America, circa 1960, "Mad Men." Originally, I was fascinated by the show’s unabashed verisimilitude: to begin with, everyone smokes constantly (at home, at parties, in restaurants, in offices--physicians included). For another, institutionalized sexism, homophobia and racism abound. From what I understand from those who worked in corporate America at the time, the show is nothing if not true to life. For the record, I was one year old in 1962, the current year of the series, which focuses on the lives and families of the employees of a fictional ad agency. (The "Mad" in the title refers to Madison Avenue, at least in part.)
Last night I was surprised to see Colin Hanks (son of Tom) stride confidently onto the scene in a Roman collar. One of the show’s main characters, Peggy, a former secretary and now budding copywriter for the ad agency, comes from a strongly Catholic family. Last season, Peggy became pregnant, and ended up "giving away" her baby to be raised by her sister and mother. On last night’s show, Peggy, hungover and slipping out of a Sunday Mass, meets a visiting priest, the young Father Gill, who mentions that he’ll be dining at her sister’s home. The family fawns over the young priest who tells them of his time in Rome, and being in the Vatican at the same time the pope is in residence. To hammer home their adulation of the priest, the family is shown snapping photos of the young cleric.
At the end of the meal, Father Gill somewhat too eagerly offers Peggy a ride to the subway, and looks, as screenwriters say, "meaningfully" in her direction after she gives him some tips on his homilies. (Keep it simple and make eye contact, she says sensibly.) Father is clearly entranced by Peggy, and expresses dismay when, on another visit, he’s told that she’s not at the family home.
Later, Peggy’s sister tells the priest in the confessional about Peggy’s child. And at the end of the episode, at an Easter Egg roll, the priest hands Peggy an Easter Egg, while staring at her child, and says to her, "For the little one."
In other words, Father has just, more or less, broken the seal of the confessional. Which, by the way, is grounds for automatic excommunication. For the record, the seal means that you cannot divulge anything about a confession, and are forbidden from discussing confessional material outside the confessional--even with the one who confesses. Nor, after confession, can the priest act on anything he has heard inside the confessional. Father Gill, who presumably has just been studying in Rome, would have known that even mentioning something like that to Peggy is strictly verboten.
After Mass the camera zooms in on the parish bulletin, which lists the priest’s name: Father Gill, S.J. Ugh--he’s a Jesuit! With a wandering eye and a big mouth. (And note to the costume designer: if he’s a Jesuit, he’s wearing the wrong style cassock.)
Here’s how the website Television Without Pity, recaps the show: "Peggy meets a young new priest at work, and he asks her for help with an upcoming sermon he has to give. Her assistance renders the speech a big hit, but this raises the long-simmering ire of her sister, who spills the beans about Peggy’s pregnancy to the priest in confession. The priest, in turn, subtly lets on to Peggy that he knows, so we’ll see where that goes."
Colin Hanks is slated to appear on "Mad Men" for three episodes, and I’m curious to see where his priestly vocation leads him. My hunch: he’ll make a pass at Peggy. Given the vagaries of television I suppose we should be grateful that he’s not a pedophile. But is the only way that television can make a priest interesting is by making him not a very good one?
James Martin, SJ