The following contains spoilers to the movie Calvary (2014).
Last night, I went to the movies with two of my classmates to see Calvary. Last night, I was hit by a train in the theatre.
Calvary is about the turmoil of the Irish people in the wake of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The movie opens in the confessional with a man revealing to the priest that he had been sexually abused by a priest for multiple years and, just as he had been innocent and undeserving of such acts, he planned on killing this priest precisely because he was a good priest and had nothing to do with the abuse. He told the priest that he planned on killing him on the following Sunday.
For one week, the viewer follows the priest on his road to Calvary, an “innocent” man on his way to slaughter, through the brokenness all around him. Torn apart by the acts committed by clergymen and completely disillusioned by the hierarchy’s attempt to cover them up, each character has one of two dispositions: 1) Pure anger and disrespect, unwilling to hide their disgust and fully willing to take it all out on him, or 2) in a much more chilling way, mockery at what people find to be completely irrelevant, even a laughing matter, the Church.
And yet, oddly enough, each character in the movie is found at Mass in the opening scene, and throughout the movie, each character is preoccupied with the sins they have committed, freely sharing their faults and failings in hopes that they will be forgiven. It is a strange disconnect between thought and action, an acceptance of faith but denial of virtue, a denial of church but a fear of not attending. Because of this, each and every character is able to recognize their sins, but not a single one shows contrition for what they’ve done. Despite the terrible sins of nearly every single character, there is not one truly repentant heart in the whole movie.
Against the backdrop of the sex abuse crisis, Calvary presents a stunning parallel between the people of God and the hierarchy of the Church. In the scene just after the church has been violently burned down by a disillusioned parishioner, the other priest says to him, “Hasn’t the Church paid enough for these sins? For God’s sake we’re nearly bankrupt because of all we’ve given out. If you ask me, I think it’s time that we forgive and forget” (paraphrase mine). In this one character, Calvary epitomizes what many feel about “the Church”: like the people of God, it is able to acknowledge its sins, and to some extent has even paid greatly for them, but shows no act of true repentance or conversion. Is it sorry for being punished, or does it truly seek reconciliation?
In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the movie, the main character reveals to the man wishing to kill him that someone had killed his dog. “Did you cry when you found him?” the man with the gun asks the priest. “Yes… yes, I loved that dog.” “Did you cry when you read in the newspaper what your brother priests were doing to innocent people like me?” (long pause) “No… I was too detached.” It was in this line that I felt the director speaking directly to the audience. “Why didn’t you cry when news broke? Why didn’t you well up with anger at this injustice and put a stop to this?” Like the priest, we may not have abused anyone ourselves, but as the body of Christ, it was the failings of the whole that allowed this to happen, continue, and go un-repented.
Such, I believe, is the nature of all sin and the beauty of this terribly graphic movie. Throughout this movie, the virtuous priest worked night and day to seek out his lost sheep that had been led astray. Confession after confession he remained patient when confronted with the most repugnant of acts: adultery, cannibalism, attempted suicide, domestic violence, corporate theft, abandonment, and sex abuse. With no judgment, he attempted to forgive everyone he met, calling each to focus on positive virtue over past sins. Even though almost every character had been so disillusioned that they felt salvation was no longer an option, he continued to serve God’s people. But he could not save any of them. He could not grant even one person absolution. Were their sins too grave? No, there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, he repeated many times. What was lacking was true repentance. Although they could name their sins, they lacked the virtue to want to live differently. All too often I find myself with the same heart.
All in all, I would say that this was one of the best and most challenging movies I have seen in a long time. As a seminarian, I felt myself pulled violently in opposite directions: on the one hand, “What the heck have I gotten myself into? The Church is broken and irrelevant! Jump ship!” and on the other, “This is exactly why I feel called to this ministry. People need to vent and they need someone willing to walk with them. The world needs more positive images of faith.” Although I would not recommend it to everyone, I think that every single seminarian should see this movie. Rated R for graphic content and language, Calvary is not for the faint of heart, but it is Christian at its core. The fact that the main character is a priest only makes obvious what the entire movie seeks to portray, that God is a merciful God ever wishing reconciliation with us, and, despite our brokenness and pain, we are capable of loving and forgiving those who have hurt us. But we have to choose to do so. God may forgive us, but it is up to us to accept it.