A reader has a question for somebody knowledgable in history

He writes:

In my high school theology classes I like to show films that portray Catholic priests in a positive light (for my Vocations class in particular). I recently showed the films “The Mission” and “Molokai: the story of Father Damien”. The students picked up the positives of being a dedicated and heroic priest, but in both of these films the Bishops/Hierarchy come across as pretty nasty overall. I’m wondering how historical these depictions are. I couldn’t find any quick reference online to answer my question, so I wanted to see if Shea World can assist. I know “The Mission” isn’t depicting a particular set of priests, but the decision to throw the indigenous peoples under the bus after converting seemed to be a joint decision of the Catholic Hierarchy and corrupt Monarchs- what exactly was the role of Catholic Hierarchy in these Jesuit missions and decisions regarding their fate? for “Molokai” Father Damien came across as saintly and real, but his religious superior and his bishop(s) were real rats as depicted. His first bishop was depicted fairly positively,but a bit of a bumbler, seemingly unaware of Father Damien’s religious superior’s evil bent. And the second bishop is depicted as a cigar smoking jerk who colludes with the religious superior to make Father Damien’s life a total hell on earth- which wasn’t always taken in stride by an increasingly frustrated and angry future Saint. Of course, I’m describing the film and perhaps not what really went down? Anybody in the Shea Zone know what really went down in both of these films, and whether the artistic liberties were taken to deliberately make the Catholic Hierarchical reps look ridiculous and even evil?

This requires more knowledge than I have. I’m always skeptical of historical films because they have to ramp up conflict to have good drama. History is seldom as neat as that. If somebody actually has some knowledge of Fr. Damien and/or the historical realities behind the Mission, please step up. It’s certainly not unusual to find that Catholics (including clerics and bishops have behaved shabbily. But I’d like to know the facts.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    I love The Mission, though I’ve never made a study of the actual history involved. It’s a brilliant movie and the perfect story to discuss sainthood, repentance, and sacrifice. And it has the best score of any film ever made. “Gabriel’s Oboe” can bring me to tears if I’m in the right mood.
    .
    It’s been years since I last saw it, but I remember the movie Becket (with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) being very admiring of the Faith.
    .
    And even though there are no clergy as main characters, the John Sayles film THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH is surprisingly Catholic and distributist in its message. Wonderful movie. One of my all-time favorites.

    • wlinden

      Also, the priest in ONDINE.

  • Sean P. Dailey

    The Exorcism of Emily Rose has a very positive portrayal of the priesthood. But, again, the diocese bureaucracy does not come off well.

    I think it’s a common Hollywood trope in movies about the Church. Priests: good; bishops: bad.

    • Heather

      I suspect it’s the same trope as “captains are heroes, generals are butchers.”

  • wlinden

    Contrast “The Mission” with Voltaire’s ludicrous depiction of the same events in CANDIDE. Check under “reducions”.

  • Procopius

    “Black Robe” was very good, though perhaps not suitable in uneditied form for high-school class (some sexual content (not involving the priest, and also at least having some narrative function, but if you can edit it out on computer, the film should be great for kids)

  • Tom Leith

    Well, since nobody else is answering the question either ;-) there’s A Man for All Seasons.

    Nothing along these lines would particularly surprise me — there was great tension evidently between what was then called The Propaganda and the Jesuit order, which had been suppressed then un-suppressed and so-forth in the late 18th & early 19th centuries. The Jesuits wanted independence as a religious order, The Propaganda wanted to control missionary activity. Jesuits were much more interested in what’s called these days “inculturation”, whilst Rome wanted all the new Catholics to be thoroughly Roman. The Imaginative Conservative has a three-part history of the first Catholic Bishop of America, John Carroll, SJ in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and <a href=http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2011/07/john-carroll-and-creation-catholic-2.htmlPart 3. In his time, North America was a mission territory under the control of The Propaganda. He wanted to establish an actual diocese for North America to get out from under its thumb (as well as for other good reasons). It is very interesting.

  • http://hjg.com.ar/ Hernán J. González

    >the Bishops/Hierarchy come across as pretty nasty overall

    Well, one could suspected that the NT (perhaps even the AT) started the trend ;-)

    And recall also Joan of Arc, St. John of the Cross and so many others…

    One can always assume that there is some fiction (in this kind of narrative, stilistically, a hostile-stupid-evil oposition from the people with power fits like a glove), but the other less confortable explanation remains.

    > films that portray Catholic priests in a positive light
    I wonder if Diary of a country priest would fit that description. :-/

  • Sam Rodgers

    “The Scarlet and the Black” is a great film with Gregory Peck as Msgr. O’Flaherty, who helped hide Jews in Rome during WWII. The only hierarch represented in Pius XII, who is shown doing the best he can under very difficult circumstances. It’s a good example of a Church authority figure shown in a good light.

    • Joe Blough

      I found a torrent for this yesterday and was able to download it. I’m about a half hour in, and it seems quite watchable.

  • jroberts548

    The secular clergy, in Rome and especially in Portugal and Spain, completely sold out the Jesuits and the Guarani. There’s a contemporary account of the suppression of the Jesuits by Giulio Cesare Cordara, S.J., available in English translation by John P. Murphy, S.J., titled “On the Suppression of the Society of Jesus: A Contemporary Account.”

    There were a whole confluence of reasons, from increased secularization of schools in Europe, to controversies over the Chinese and Malabar rites, and the controversy with the Jansenists. These coupled with Spanish and Portuguese concerns over Jesuit influence internally and opposition to the Jesuits in the colonies. So The Mission is basically accurate, but it’s only showing a small slice of how the secular clergy were treating the Jesuits (not that the rest of the pie is any better).

  • Carlos Ramalhete

    as for the Jesuits in The Mission (I don’t know about the other movie): the Bishops were public servants, as the Padroado law gave the kings of Portugal and Spain authority over the Church hierarchy. The Bishops were appointed by the King and paid by him, as well as all the diocesan clergy. The Jesuits, on the other hand, obeyed only the Pope (that is their fourth vow), and were perceived by the Diocesan clergy as troublemakers. No Bishop wanted Jesuits in his territory, and the Spanish Bishops tended to see the Jesuits as secretly working for the Portuguese King, and vice-versa. So some nastiness from Bishops was indeed to be expected when you were a Jesuit.
    It is also important to remember that the Brazilian Bandeirantes (who were based in São Paulo and were kind of mixed-blood, speaking a Jesuit-invented language called Nheengatu, or “General Language”, a mix of all the coastal Indian dialects. Even today most of São Paulo neighborhoods have Nheegatu names) were the worst enemies of the Mission Jesuits, for they wanted to kidnap the Mission-territory Indians to sell them as slaves, and the Jesuits forbade them and armed the Indians. The Portuguese clergy basically supported the Bandeirantes against the Jesuits, as they were working for the enrichment of the Portuguese territory.

  • http://saskapriest.com/ Fr. Darryl Millette

    Coincidentally: just last night I watched Of Gods and Men, a 2010 French film (English subtitles) about the 1996 assassination of the monks of Tibhirine during the Algerian civil war. It’s a powerful film. There is one instance of foul language and another graphic instance of violence during the war, but otherwise it masterfully shows the serene life of the Trappist monks and their interactions with the townspeople. I’d highly recommend it.

  • Eve Fisher

    Re Father Damien, the Catholic superior and bishop (insofar as I’ve read) were totally supportive. It was the Congregational and Presbyterian clergy were very dismissive of him, to the point that the Reverend Charles McEwen Hyde wrote a letter calling Father Damien “a coarse, dirty man”. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a magnificent, scathing letter telling the Rev. Hyde what manner of man he was, and what manner of man Father Damien was. It can be found here: http://www.fullbooks.com/Father-Damien.html

    Re “The Mission” – sadly, that does have considerable historical basis. A lot of it stemmed from politics back in Europe – Spain and Portugal were fighting over the borders of Brazil (i.e., Paraguay, in this case, and the powers that were in Spain at the time ceding control of much of the Jesuit section in Paraguay to Portugal) in the 1750′s. The Portuguese colonists wanted to dismantle the missions and enslave the Guarani, and after the transfer, the Jesuits were ordered to leave – and did so, leaving the Guarani people to fight the war all on their own (and lose it). Even so, the Portuguese in South America accused the Jesuits of various crimes and forcibly deported them from Portuguese South America (they also eventually suppressed the order in Portugal, a move that led to a 10 year break with Rome, diplomatically). Yes, the natives were thrown under a bus – but this was, sadly, incredibly common throughout the history of Western expansion.

  • Loretta

    There’s enough spiteful “history” on both sides of the coin regarding Kingdom and Territorial Hawai’i to fill the shelves of a large bookcase (and, sadly, I had some cousins right in the middle of it, as missionaries for the American Board of Christian Foreign Missions). As with all history, one must dig into the documents to find the truth, and even then the rose-colored filter of frame of reference has to be considered. The mission era in Hawai’i is similar to the mission era in Washington. Was Bishop Blanchet an oligarch and an ogre for offering the last sacraments to the native peoples convicted (wrongly, as scapegoats) for the murders of the Whitmans? Or was he being merciful and doing what Catholic bishops are supposed to do, saving souls? Similarly, in Hawai’i, far from Rome, the bishops served as vicars apostolic…meaning they had to cooperate with what little civil authority there was, to a degree bishops don’t have to now. IMHO, Molokai was dramatized.

  • BHG

    I think it’s important to discuss how the diocesan bureaucracy is treated in the film. Bishops and functionaries have a hard job–maintaining the faith and shepherding the faithful while responding to the call of God in their own lives–a hard job and one in which mistakes are very, very visible–and sometimes they, like everyone else, have trouble with the assignment. Molokai does a good job of showing how it would appear to Fr. Damien–and he’s faithful anyway in spite of his treatment. It leaves a lot unsaid that could be fruitful for discussion–how does the Bishop seem to you? Why do you have such a negative image of him? Is there an alternative explanation that might not make you think so badly of him? How do we know? What does this say about Fr. Damien’s faith? What is an appropriate response in faith and in charity for us to have to the characters in the movie? The point is: we ALL “fill in the blanks” with our own interpretations and they are almost always at least partly wrong–and there’s almost always something we are missing that makes it make better sense. My mantra? We all mess it up (even Fr. Damien) in different ways….use the film as a chance to grow some charity and patience and faith in your class as well as some skepticism with respect to how Hollywood portrays Catholics. And it grows perspective, too. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to us that God is doing such a good job for HIs people either (remember the Israelites in the desert…”Why did you bring us out here to starve?”). Can we be faithful even when it seems everything is turning out wrong?

  • Jem
  • Guest

    “I Confess,” a Hitchcock thriller in which a priest suffers suspicion and scandal because he he refuses to break the seal of the confessional.


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