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What if I told you that there was a movie with Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons; gorgeous scenery and cinematography of the rain forest; some of the best movie music you’ll ever hear; packed with action, violence, and religious intrigue; and best of all, was a thoroughly Catholic movie?

Sounds like a winner right? When’s it come out?

1986, actually. It’s called The Mission, and it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.

Set in 18th century South America, the movie follows the life of a community of Jesuits entrusted with setting up missions for the native peoples, building houses, educating them, and building Christian communities. When political forces try to shut down the missions, the Jesuits are faced with a difficult question: do they leave, as they were told to do, or do they stay with their people? And if they choose to stay, do they accept the slaughter that will come to them, or do they pick up arms and defend the defenseless?

What I love about the movie, and why Tito and I focus on it for our podcast this week, is because it presents two completely valid approaches to violence from a Catholic moral perspective but refrains from telling the viewer which was is correct. As all good movies do, the question is asked but the answer is left up to the viewer. For us, it offers a window not only into our past—in this case, 18th century South American—but more importantly into the nature of violence in any age. As good and faithful people, doing our best to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, how do we respond to the Holocaust? To the Rwandan genocide? To ISIS? To the bully on the playground?

For us, the answers are not as clear as some might have us believe.


As a side note, the friars of my community were on a day of recollection this weekend, which was spiritually and fraternally nourishing (very important) but ministerially hindering. The time away not only kept me from filming a new episode of Catholicism in Focus, but also from writing a blog post about last week’s reflection. At this point, the opportunity has come and gone, so I’m not going to go back and write one, but if you’re interested in watching the video, I have placed it below.

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After a heavy conversation about death last week, Tito and I keep it light with a conversation about our favorite television shows, books, and movies. By no means an exhaustive list, we did our best to touch a few things that we like in entertainment and offer a few examples of each.

Hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving this week!

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Death is not the subject of polite conversations. Even the word “death” seems impolite. Instead, we use euphemisms like “passed away” or “gone to a better place” to hide from the subject, avoiding any substantial acknowledgment of the reality. When dealing with children, the topic is sometimes avoided altogether, hiding the death of a pet by replacing it with a new one or just telling the child that “grandma isn’t here anymore” without explaining where grandma is or what happened to her.

This… does not set people up for a healthy relationship with the inevitable reality of life. Like it or not, people die. Our loved ones will not always be with us.

Already in my short ministerial life as a friar, I have found that death and funerals are all the more tragic because it is a reality that catches people off guard. Having suppressed feelings inside or ignored the possibility, most people are completely unprepared for what will happen to us all and our loved ones. In what seems to be the makings of a childhood fable, we don’t do any work along the way and are left with tremendous stress having to deal with it all at once.

Luckily, for such an avoided conversation topic, art and entertainment love to include death as a key dramatic feature. Killing off a beloved character—even the family pet—is commonplace (and soooo cruel!) Even in children’s entertainment, death is far from an untouchable topic: Disney and Pixar seem to kill off a parent in every movie.

And people watch these movies. They read these books. They don’t turn away from them or criticize them.

Which, to me, proves once again how art and entertainment are windows into a deeper reality. Movies, television shows, and books offer us opportunities to gradually encounter death and tragedy throughout our lives without actually experiencing them, forcing us to reflect on their significance, deal with our feelings, and hopefully prepare for the inevitable. As much as we may want to avoid the topic in conversations, movies bring our thoughts and feelings to the fore and force us to reckon with them.

To me, this can only be a good thing, and my hope is that people take advantage of this opportunity. Especially when dealing with children, we need to have serious conversations about the meaning of life, one’s primal fears of death, and ultimately, the power of Christ to conquer death. I say it all of the time in my talks, I think death is the most important topic that a Christian could ever talk about. If we are going to be true followers of Christ, the one who laid down his life for a friend and asks us to do the same, we need to get a little more comfortable talking about it. We may not have any innate skills for doing so, and our culture may actually act against this need, but art and entertainment offer us that opportunity to begin the conversation.

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Have you ever heard a story that ended with, “And then I found $20”? It’s the mark of a story gone awry. Having lost the attention of the listener, missing the important points, or simply realizing that the story was terrible from the start, the storyteller tries to salvage the story with an exciting ending: despite the boring events, at least the person had some good fortune at the end.

We all know what a bad story sounds like. We’ve all suffered through them, whether it be from a 5-year-old who can’t seem to stay focused on the point of the story or a fully-grown adult who just can’t seem to get to the point. We know a bad story when we hear one.

Conversely, we all know what a good story sounds like as well. We’ve all experienced that person who has amazing charisma, who can make even the most mundane events sound extraordinary. They speak, and we can’t think of doing anything else but listen. What’s going to happen next, we ask.

This week on Everyday Liminality, Br. Tito and I discuss the art of storytelling with two questions in mind: what makes a good story, and more importantly, why do we tell stories at all? You can click the image above to listen or click here to find previous episodes.

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Have you ever watched an inspiring movie of real events only to find out later that Hollywood had “enhanced” part of the story to make it more interesting? For many, watching a movie “based on a true story” means very little other than the fact that the characters in the movie might have existed (but in some cases, even this is not true!) While heartwarming and inspiring, some have become jaded to Hollywood’s portrayal of history, simply expecting that it will be embellished, exaggerated, or just completely made up.

Which is a shame because movies have the tremendous ability both to inform the public of important events and to shape the way we think about them. Art in general, actually, has always had this power. Look at Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle: the predecessor to the FDA was founded in large part due to the public outrage over the events depicted in the book! Almost everything we think about pirates came not from history but from the book Treasure Island. And what about our understanding of biblical events? For most, our conception of angels and demons, heaven and hell, and what God looks like (old guy with beard) comes straight from medieval art.

So much of our own worldview and imagination is formed by what we watch on screen, see in galleries, or read in books. Which presents an interesting question: who bears the greater burden of maintaining the truth, the one creating the art or the one consuming it?

That’s what Tito and I discussed with week on Everyday Liminality