Dan Lord, Hollywood Priest
This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Daniel A. Lord, S.J. (1888-1955), one of the best-known American Jesuits of the last century. Though now forgotten by many, Lord was a larger-than-life figure in the seemingly confident, cohesive preconciliar church in America. Catholics, especially the generation that came of age during the interwar years, were undoubtedly influenced by Lord’s work. He directed the sodality movement and edited its popular magazine, The Queen’s Work, wrote hundreds of literary and dramatic works and led the crusade to safeguard Americans from immoral films.
Born in Chicago, Lord attended Catholic elementary and high schools before beginning studies at St. Ignatius College in Chicago. It was there that he became intrigued by the life of St. Francis Xavier and attracted to life as a Jesuit. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1909 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1923 after more than a decade of study and teaching. Lord’s years as a Jesuit, spanning more than four decades, were marked by his participation in a variety of apostolates, including education, ministry to the young and communication.
Fifty years after his death, Lord remains an intriguing personality, in part because of the divergent assessments of his life and ministry. Not always welcomed or respected, he encountered his fiercest opposition from the film industry, where he was seen as a meddlesome priest set on ruining Hollywood. Similarly, Lord was not always appreciated within the church or by his confreres. Among the Society of Jesus’ band of teachers and scholars, Lord was sometimes viewed as a popularizer, who exhibited an anti-intellectual approach to the faith unbefitting a son of Ignatius. Some considered his use of drama and the mass media to communicate the faith a less than noble means for teaching serious truths. Because of his specialized work, Lord’s ministry required him to travel frequently from diocese to diocese, which made him appear at times as a renegade Jesuit and led to the assertion by one American bishop that Lord was an example of the harm that could be done when a priest’s ministry passed outside the control of the bishops.
These assessments of Lord’s life and ministry should not, however, be viewed apart from his remarkable popularity as a youth organizer, author, playwright and media consultant. In particular, his wide appeal among young people, long before the days of recognized youth ministry, was without parallel. Lord’s dramatic and literary works testified to the enduring appeal of themes of heroism, virtue and faith and their ability to speak to the young of every generation. During his lifetime he energized and engaged hundreds of thousands of young people by employing music, drama, narrative and ritual as means to spiritual growth.
An Army of Youth
Shortly after his ordination, Lord somewhat unwillingly commenced the work that would frame nearly his entire ministry, becoming director of the Jesuit-sponsored Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1925. The sodality, which began as a loose network of student-based charitable and devotional groups often headquartered at Jesuit educational institutions, expanded dramatically under Lord’s leadership, claiming over two million members at its high point. Though it was labeled a dying organization before his involvement, Lord quickly set to work on a national plan for expansion, beginning with a revival of the sodality’s magazine. The magazine grew to become a major tool for catechesis and evangelization and had an impact on students of nearly every Catholic school in the nation. Lord’s creativity enveloped every aspect of the movement, including his drafting of the theme song, For Christ the King, which began, An army of youth flying the standards of Truth, We’re fighting for Christ the Lord. Heads lifted high, Catholic Action our cry, And the Cross our only sword. Many Catholics who were in school near mid-century can still recall the tune and its lyrics. Remaining national director of the sodality until 1948, Lord was the chief architect of its growth, the organizational and creative force behind what at one time was the most significant movement of American Catholic youth.
Eight Million Words
Noted for his organizing zeal, Lord was also one of the principal participants in the Catholic literary revival of the early 20th century, which aimed at propagating distinctively Catholic literary and dramatic works. Unlike most of his Jesuit counterparts, who were attracted to a scholastic, intellectual means of handing on the faith, Lord took a popular approach that relied primarily on catchy titles, poems, cartoons and songsthings that appealed to youth by way of emotion rather than strictly intellect. To this end, he began writing numerous pamphlets and articles that drove home the typical themes of Catholic Action: eucharistic and Marian devotion, modesty in dress and conduct, respect for the family and persons of authority, anti-secularism and, later, attacks on the chief ism: Communism.
Lord’s writings often had provocative titles meant to capture the attention of young peoplefor example, The Church Is a Failure (1939), Confession Is a Joy (1933) and Don’t Marry a Catholic (1952). His fresh style won him many followers who had only to look to their parish’s literature rack for his latest installment. Not including letters, it is estimated that he penned an average of 20,000 words per month over the course of his 35-year ministry, totaling at least eight million words. By the time of his death, Lord had written 90 books, nearly 300 pamphlets and countless articles. His works had sold over 25 million copies by the 1960’s, assuring that Lord influenced most American Catholics educated in the first half of the 20th century.
King of Drama
In addition to his literary output, Lord was known for creating and directing elaborate pageants that often involved hundreds of participants. An accomplished pianist and teacher of drama, he created 58 musicals. Relying on local talent with minimal rehearsing, his musical masques blended moral and social lessons with historical themes, often featuring the triumphant medieval crusader as the protagonist. The historian Peter McDonough has called Lord’s pageants the multimedia events of the era. They included Lord pounding away at the piano, spotlights turning from one end of the proscenium to the other and much flapping of drapery and theatrical gowns (Men Astutely Trained). Lord took his pageants on the road, from city to city, directing his plays in sold-out venues.
Lord’s interest in drama easily transferred into a fascination with film. He earned a reputation as the Catholic authority on film after serving as a consultant to Cecil B. DeMille’sThe King of Kings (1927), a cinematic portrayal of the life of Christ. Within a few years, Lord became prominent in the effort to censor the content of movies as a backer of the Legion of Decency and author of the Motion Picture Production Code. Though he himself was an entertainer who skillfully used the stage, Lord’s support of film censorship indicated his unwillingness to allow artistic freedom to trump moral parameters. His involvement in the drafting of the production code remains of particular interest among historians and sociologists, perhaps because it is here that Lord’s influence seems most foreign to our contemporary understanding.
A Half-Century After Father Lord
Fifty years after the death of Father Lord, his is no longer a widely recognized name among American Catholics. Few have taken notice of him in recent years; the last biography of Lord is now more than 25 years old. Perhaps he lacks notoriety at present because he was less a media icon, like Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, than an indefatigable organizer, consultant and directornot the one on the stage or in front of the cameras, but the one behind the scenes. Doubtlessly, people recognized the name Father Lord more rapidly than his likeness, because of the abundance of his publications.
Father Lord’s is a life worth remembering, not only because he was one of the most notorious Jesuits of the last century, but because he represents a pioneering vision for the church’s ministry in a modern, media-saturated world. Lord championed a form of public Catholicism meant to compel youth to take their faith out into the world, not to leave it sequestered in churches and schools, safe from spreading. What appealed to a generation of Catholic youth and what should elicit our admiration today is Lord’s zeal to communicate with people using the most effective means available, whether the stage, the written word or the cinema. Lord’s works connected the faith with the experiences and interests of youth, employing modern technology and cultural themes without shortchanging the vitality of the church’s teachings.
Lord’s ability to engage and energize youth was unmatched in his time. He made the truth attractive, spoke frankly about the church’s teachings and imparted his message with youthful enthusiasm. Lord’s legacy to this century, then, is not a call for the church to turn back the clock to a bygone era but to use every means to evangelize zealously in the 21st century.