Calvary: Forgiveness and Faith in a Secular Landscape

Calvary is a beautiful, bleak, powerful film about the role of the church and faith in a secular world. Set in County Sligo, Ireland, it is an unflinching examination of the effects of the sexual abuse crisis on the institution of the Catholic Church and on the religious faith of the Irish people. It begins with images that suggest all is as it has been. Sunday mass in a rural parish is well attended. The priest, Brendan Gleeson, sits down in the confessional and hears as a parishioner, whose voice he recognizes, tells of the abuse he suffered from a priest as a young boy. And then he continues, “I’m going to kill you. You’re a good priest.” His rationale is that no one would think anything of it if he were to kill the priest who abused him or another priest who had been accused of abuse. But a good priest, if he killed a good priest, people would take notice.

The film plays out in a week, a holy week during which we see the priest going about his business, tending to his flock, trying to offer pastoral care to people in broken relationships and broken lives. He tells his bishop about the threat but doesn’t identify who made it. In the course of the week, his daughter comes to visit (he had been married; his wife died of cancer and he entered the priesthood after that). She had recently attempted suicide and during their time together admits that she felt abandoned by both parents, by her mother’s death, and her father’s escape into the priesthood that left her orphaned.

One of the plotlines involves Father James’ ministry to a woman who was widowed when drunk drivers crashed into the car she and her husband were in. She’s French and quickly reveals herself to have a fierce faith that can process even so horrific and unexpected a death.

As I watched the film, I reflected on my own priesthood, carried out in a very different setting and dealing for the most part with much less dramatic issues. As I watched Father James make his rounds, I was struck by his humanity and his compassion, by his efforts to help people in situations that were very difficult and sometimes in situations where people didn’t want his help and actively derided him.

Ireland in the 1950s may have been stultified by the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, but its precipitous decline in the second half of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first has left a gaping hole in Irish society. S. Brent Plate comments:

The alternatives to the ethical and spiritual influence of religion are not all they are cracked up to be. The smart and rational-minded fritter life away with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The commoners don’t appear to have the sense to make sense. The rich piss it away. The sensitive become self-destructive to the point of suicide.

I think that’s exactly right. Whatever reasons people in this parish have for continuing to come to church, it’s clear that their lives have no spiritual or ethical center. John Michael McDonagh depicts a religion-less world, or a world in which religion holds no deeper meaning beyond the externals of ritual. Father James goes about his business with the death warrant hanging over him, seeking to console and comfort, to guide those around him even as he submits to the fate that awaits him. I wonder whether the film maker had in mind Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as he wrote and filmed the final scene:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In the end, Father James’ continual plea for forgiveness, for himself, for others, for his daughter, offers a way through the evils of the past and present, as well as hope for the future. As the film closes, we see the words “I forgive you” formed on his daughter’s lips; or at least I did.

Other takes:

Some thoughts from Jean Meade:

But it is really about being a Christian, which means being willing to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death: the shadow of one’s own predicted murder, of continuing to live on in faith after tragedy, and of forgiveness to your father’s murderer. The priest who is the main character, the new widow, and the priest’s daughter who botched her suicide – he was married and widowed before his ordination – are each followers of Christ. Each has a different terrible valley to go through. In spite of everything, each eventually walks on, amazingly confident even in the midst of fear and pain and loss that “thou art with me” (Ps 23:4).

Kaya Oakes:

Calvary posits that faith is mostly a fear of death, but in reality, like Gleeson’s performance, faith is a living, changing, malleable thing. His Father James helps us understand why people still need religion: because all of us, in one way are another, are sad and alone, and a person who will sit with you in your loneliness can be a source of deep consolation. Samuel Beckett understood this, but he also understood that the reverse of that bleakness is the kicking and fighting desire for life that we all possess. Calvary has its bleakness. But in the end it lacks the fight.

And a very different perspective from Episcopalians Bonnie Anderson and Rev. Dan Webster at the Episcopal Cafe who saw aloofness where I saw connection.

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