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.

My Continuing Education dilemma

I started an interesting conversation on Twitter this evening when I asked several people for advice on how to spend my continuing education funds in the coming year. The early registration deadline for the conference I’ve attended the past two years is imminent, so I spent some time looking at the schedule and learning about the presenters and workshops. While there are a great many things on offer, it seemed to me that the topics were heavily weighted toward institutional maintenance (endowments, clergy transition and the like) and relatively little on topics that would challenge me to think beyond the walls of the building or challenge the way I do and think about ministry.


So, what am I looking for in a conference? That’s hard to say because I have very little to go on. My experience with conferences has primarily been with academic conferences which fell into two very broad categories. The one sort of conference was the giant, international gathering like the American Academy of Religion that brings together thousands of scholars from all over the world. For me, the AAR was primarily an opportunity to visit the publishers’ displays and to reconnect with friends and colleagues from graduate school. The other conferences I attended were either regional meetings of the larger AAR or smaller conferences that focused on particular issues or fields of study (the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference). These latter conferences offered opportunities to engage deeply with other scholars both on common interests and in interdisciplinary conversation. There also tended to be, especially at the regional meeting, more conversation about pedagogy in our particular contexts. As a teacher and as a scholar, I tended to learn more and think more creatively about my work. One of the most exciting things about those smaller conferences was when the big-name scholars attended the entire event and engaged with graduate students, young faculty, and other established scholars in a variety of settings.


As a priest, I have attended exactly two conferences. I have not participated in any continuing education workshops that lasted longer than 2 days; I have not attended seminars of any sort. The one continuing ed event that I attended was quite valuable (staffed by the Alban Institute). Here’s what I don’t need:


  • I don’t need to attend plenaries to listen to canned lectures by theological or ministerial “rock stars.”
  • I don’t need workshops in which presenters enthuse about the wonderful and successful programs they’ve created
  • I don’t need to hear the word “missional”
  • I don’t need to attend a Eucharist with a powerful sermon preached by a wonderful bishop that is completely unrelated to the rest of the meeting (and the bishop having flown off to his/her next gig immediately after the Dismissal)
  • I don’t need workshops that are really presentations by organizations trying to sell me their products or services
  • I don’t need opportunities to schmooze and network
  • I don’t need to hear presentations by church agencies or functionaries or seminaries


Here’s what I need:


  • I need to be fed spiritually. This may be one of the few times throughout the year that I am not presiding at worship. To participate with others in the Daily Office is a great joy; to have opportunities to nourish my prayer life and my relationship with Jesus Christ even as I am being challenged vocationally and intellectually would deepen the overall experience
  • I need help thinking about my particular ministry context. Workshops that are led by people doing creative ministry in particular contexts, sharing failures as well as successes; but followed by conversations with those leaders about one’s own particular context (in other words, less presentation and more conversation; what can we learn from each other, how can we help each other)
  • I would welcome the opportunity to learn about and strategize about specific ministries in specific contexts—so an in-depth exploration of a parish by a group of people from similar contexts working together to learn about a congregation’s successes and failures and imagining new ministry opportunities


Let me know if you are aware of any opportunities such as those I’ve listed. I’m desperate enough to think that maybe the AAR would be the best use of the funds I have available.