Calvary

This is part II of an essay. Part I is here.

posterThe global recession that hit the world in 2008 impacted few places deeper than Ireland. In 2009 two studies commissioned by the Irish government, the Murphy Report and Ryan Report, revealed the extent of abuses committed by priests in the Catholic Church for much of the twentieth century. As with any story context can help inform the actions of the characters in a story. For the characters in Calvary, set in a small village in modern day Ireland, the wounds opened by the abuses of banks and the Catholic Church are still very raw.

The movie opens with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) taking confession. An unseen person in the confessor’s booth tells Father James that he was raped by a priest as a child and now is going to kill Father James. “I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’re innocent… There’s no point in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one. That’d be a shock.” The man gives Father James a week to get his house in order before his execution.

During the week that is depicted in the movie Father James continues life as normal, to the best of his ability given the circumstances. This begins by administering communion to the people of the village at Sunday’s service. The week also includes a visit from his daughter (he became a priest after his wife died) who tried to commit suicide after a bad breakup. In addition to meeting with the people of the village, he also meets with an older American writer, a psychopathic inmate, and a widow, who has just lost her husband in a car accident.

While carrying out his priestly duties he is faced with several challenges. A former banker, Michael Fitzgerald (played by Dylan Moran) asks to see him at his house, apparently to flaunt his wealth, at one point pissing on a valuable oil painting. Later the church is burned down, and his dog is killed. Left with no church, spurned by the people of the village, and his death imminent he gets drunk and shoots up the bar where most of the town gathers with a revolver borrowed for self-defense. The barkeeper beats his with a baseball bat.

With no one in the village receptive to him, and his work, Father James goes to the airport with the intention of leaving town and missing his appointment with the man in the confessional. While there he meets the widow, and realizes that he has made an impact on someone’s life and the role of the church is not over. He returns to the village where he meets the man who threatened him. Father James had hoped to be able to talk him out of it, to save both of their lives, but his efforts fail and he dies on the beach.

Forgiveness

Through the course of Calvary several characters question whether the church is relevant or not to modern society. Given their actions it is tempting to assume the latter, and yet the most of the characters are present at the Eucharist service, which indicates the central role that the church still plays in their life as a community. This scene immediately sets the dynamic between Father James and the community. Andrew Greely writes, “When he presides over the Eucharist, he stands in the role of Jesus the high priest and is touched therefore lightly, but permanently by the transcendent. This role demands of him special efforts at goodness despite his ordinary human fragility.[1]

Father James’ goodness is recognized by everyone in the village. Indeed he may be the only good person in the village. All seven of the deadly sins are not only committed, but reveled in by the villagers, flaunting their sinfulness to Father James. Father James’ goodness is not an isolated one, but active in the community. Most of the villagers confess to him, sometimes in a restaurant, sometimes for things they are about to do. Indeed most of the movie takes place outside of the church as Father James meets people where the live and work. This location is important since in the Catholic imagination “The quest for holiness occurs, and forgiveness is earned, on the mean streets themselves.[2]

As is his role Father James offers God’s forgiveness, but most resist any real change to their lives. The thing that marks Father James as a good priest is his desire to help people change their lives. This is in contrast to the other priest at the parish who is content to sit by and be amazed at what people get up to these days.

Father James’ offer for a changed life is an example of the prophetic tradition of the Bible, including figures like Nathan, Isaiah and Jesus Christ. In The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggamann writes “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to… the only thinkable one.[3]” Most of the people of the village are caught so caught up in their way of thinking, and living that they cannot imagine another way of life. This is true in particular of the Fitzgerald, whose life had been about the accumulation of wealth to the detriment of all else, including his wife and children. Through their interactions Father James tries to challenge Fitzgerald’s conscience, since he was partially to blame for the financial crisis that crippled the country.

His prophetic role would be incomplete (particularly as Father James follow’s in Christ’s model of the prophetic) if he left his message at that. Father James continues the prophetic tradition when he “is able to articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present.[4]” By the end of the film Fitzgerald has been brought to a place where he is able to mourn for the brokenness he has caused, and asks for forgiveness. Where many in the village might be out for vengeance, Father James offers the forgiveness that Fitzgerald seeks.

An inability to forgive cripples most of the villagers. This is true even when the thing that must be forgiven is unforgivable, as with the murderer and his molester. The wound, left to fester causes the murderer to lash out at those not responsible for his pain. Just like Christ, Father James bears the burden of the sins of others. And just like Christ, he forgives the unforgivable, his own death. In doing this he embodies the “future distinct from an unbearable present” and follows Christ’s example as prophet and priest.


[1] Greeley, Andrew M. The Catholic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 147

[2] Greeley 115

[3] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. 40

[4] Brueggemann. 111

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