Controversy over the new film "Priest" was predictable. But its content is much milder than the real-life horror stories about the clergy that appear in the media. The sensitive, fictional attempt to portray the human struggles of the priests has provoked outrage in some circles in the church. It would be comforting if the news stories of sexual abuse by priests provoked similar outrage.
As a priest who resigned from the active ministry because of celibacy, I welcome the honest portrayal contained in the film. As an active member of Corpus, a national association of married priests, celibate priests and lay persons working for reform in the church, I welcome the discussion stimulated by the film. The situations depicted were all too familiar to those of us who have served in parishes across the country. If anything, the story line in the movie is too tame.
"Priest" functions as an effective parable, a story which draws the hearer (or viewer) to see new possibilities. Through narrative, it poses questions that are central to the lives of priests and the congregations they serve. Theological debates about the merits of celibacy or the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood are all well and good. In the meantime, the shortage of priests has reached crisis proportions. Clearly, a new approach is needed.
It is true that some films have portrayed the Roman Catholic priesthood in a less than flattering light. It is also true that others have described the transcendent beauty of the priesthood. "Blackrobe," "The Mission" and "Romero" have depicted priests who were men of deep faith, compassion and unswerving commitment. They were also fully human and heir to the ambivalence, confusion and sinfulness which comes with the territory.
In "The Power and the Glory," Graham Greene provides a portrait of a fallen priest who recovers the dignity of his high calling and gives his life for another at the book's conclusion. Through and because of his humanity the priest becomes an effective instrument of God's grace.
At the conclusion of "Priest," it is the mysterious power of forgiveness which is celebrated. As a conduit of forgiveness and healing, the priesthood is truly a share in the life of Christ. It is an everyday miracle present among us.
Through literature and film, we gain needed insights into the most important aspects of the human condition. "Priest" has made an important contribution to a dialogue that needs to continue for the good of the church.
Stephen J. Stahley writes from Baltimore.