There’s no point in killing a bad priest. Killing a good one? That would be a shock! They wouldn’t know what to make of that. I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ’cause you’ve done nothing wrong! I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.
These startling lines come from the opening dialogue of John Michael McDonagh’s movie Calvary, where a weary priest struggles to serve a community during what he fears may be his last week on earth. Set in rural Ireland, the film starts with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in confession with a parishioner who recounts the terrible sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. With the abusive priest already passed, the confessor, desperate for justice, tells Father James that in a week’s time he intends to kill him.
The confession lights a troubling fuse on the life of Father James as the murder-mystery unfolds. The movie is slowly heartbreaking as we find out that Father James, despite his failures and vices (he was a negligent father after the death of his wife and is recovering from alcoholism), truly cares for his flock. With his death sentence looming, he continues his uphill battle in a community that wants nothing to do with him.
In light of Holy Week, Calvary provides a taste of the challenge this week (and life) must have been for Jesus. It reminds me that Jesus’ days preceding the cross were neither empty nor void but full of persistent, unfathomable, and heartbreaking love for the people who would betray, abandon, and renounce him. Calvary also explores human nature’s bent toward detachment. Before the film starts, an epigraph from St. Augustine appears across the screen:
Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not assume; one of the thieves was damned.
Most all characters in the film live in a variation of despair, assumption, or a debilitating combination of both that separate them from someone or something. Father James continually meets with an obnoxious, cynical banker who flaunts his wealth. But what we later learn is that the banker finds absolutely no solace for what he has surrounded himself with. Dejected, he admits he has “a feeling of nothing is worthwhile, a sense of disassociation.” The search for meaning in worldly joys – money, a family, and life itself – has left him feeling empty.
The detachment of Father Leary, Father James’ buffoon of a counterpart, is an interpretation of the relationship between the church and the world. Father Leary’s venting to Father James after a confession is haughty and alienating rather than compassionate: “Can you believe what people say in confessions these days? It’s depressing…The mess people make of their lives.” Reflecting on Father Leary, I think of the impulse to disassociate with things or people that are “other,” especially if they are troubling and broken. The growth of social media has heightened awareness of world events with troubling pictures and videos of suffering. And yet, there is a detachment at play that often elicits no more than a second thought or a halfhearted condolence in response. During the dialogue of Calvary’s climax, the man who was abused as a child demands an explanation to why Father James experienced more grief when his dog died then when the child sex scandals surfaced within the Catholic Church. The question lands like a punch in the gut. It is not uncommon to detach, consciously and/or sub-consciously, from things that are not in close proximity to our own lives. Trouble and hardship can be reduced to “sad news” rather than a burning for justice and reconciliation.
The drastic detachment in Calvary is hard to stomach as it often manifests itself in nastiness towards Father James. And yet, Father James attempts to attach himself to the brokenness of the people he has been placed around. He goes out of his way to visit an elderly hermit, mediates a domestic abuse, confronts an adulterous couple, visits those on death beds and death row. He listens and rebukes, speaks truth in the simplest way, is both strong and gentle, and tries honestly to confront evil and sin. In an interview with Brendan Gleeson, he gives insight on what it was like to play such a complex character:
Interviewer: [Father James’] acceptance of his possible fate is heartbreaking but also inspiring, isn’t it?
Gleeson: John [McDonagh] keeps going on about this thing about it being a glorified suicide and all this kind of stuff. I think the image I thought about to illustrate it was the guy standing in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square. Is that suicide? For John he reckons it is, for me that’s just trying to stop a tank… He [Father James] tries to maintain that it is never too late to retrieve the goodness or the salvation of a person’s soul, it’s never too late. And in order to confront that, it’s a delicate issue. Do you avoid moments that are obviously going to be dangerous or do you insist that you must carry on and meet the challenge?
On the first Good Friday, the day we remember today, Jesus did not avoid death but fully attached himself to it (2 Corinthians 5:21). Placed between two thieves, he hung and died on the cross for the dismayed and assuming, for those who have been trampled by the tank and those who drive it. He died for the detached. As John Stott reminds, Christ “laid aside his immunity to pain” and entered into our muck and mire to take upon himself the death that had been pronounced over us.
He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours….’ ‘The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.’
The cross is where Jesus meets us in our detachment; the place where humanity’s only appropriate posture is trembling. To look in our distress toward the godless act of the crucified and innocent Jesus Christ. Only by his wounds are we healed (Isaiah 53:5). Only through his death are we able to respond with shouts of glory when the stone is rolled away.