Friday, April 20, 2012

"Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, Don't Fail Me Now!" Catholics in the Movies

In a recent speech, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria challenged Catholic men to become heroic Catholics. The world will always hate us, Bishop Jenky said, but since the days of the Roman Empire the Church has always survived its enemies. "And in the power of the resurrection," Bishop Jenky exhorted, "the Church will survive the hatred of Hollywood, the malice of the media, and the mendacious wickedness of the abortion industry."
Bishop Jenky is right of course about Hollywood; a lot of people in the entertainment industry have no use for the Catholic Church. Madonna and the Pope, I feel certain, do no exchange Christmas cards.

 Nevertheless, on the whole, Hollywood movies have been remarkably kind to us over the years. In fact, we have seen Catholic culture presented quite respectfully again and again.

In the 1940s, for example, Hollywood turned out three lovely films about American Catholics: Going My Way (1944), starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald; The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), starring Bing and Ingrad Bergman; and Come to the Stable, now almost forgotten, starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns who come to New England to start a children's hospital.  The tennis court scene alone, in which Holm plays a fast-moving game of tennis wearing a chin-to-ankle nun's habit, is well worth seeing.

And then there are the films of John Ford, who was himself a Catholic. Who can forget the church scene in The Quiet Man, in which John Wayne scoops up a handful of holy water and offers it to Maureen O'Hara (whom he is wooing), using the palm of his hand as a font. Wayne is chastised of course.  "And ye playing pitty-patty wid the holy water!", a little Irishman scolds. This is a truly lovely scene, which portrays, I think, Ford's fondness for his faith.

Recall also John Ford's classic movie, Rio Grande, also starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. In one scene, a troop of U.S. Cavalry, led by Wayne, attacks a band of Indians holed up in an abandoned mission.  The Indians have kidnapped a group of white children and have them stashed inside the mission's adobe Catholic Church.

Victor McLaughlin, playing an Irish cavalry sergeant, storms into the church as part of a rescue team. McLaughlin grabs a small girl by the hand, and the two dash down the church aisle to make their escape. Midway down the aisle, McLaughlin and the child stop, spin around, and genuflect. Then they turn and bolt out the door. What a delightfully sly tribute to our faith!

How about modern American movies--have they turned more hostile to Catholicsm? I don't think so. Anyone who has seen The Godfather will remember the church scene in which Michael Corelone, played by Al Pacino, swears to renounce the devil during his godson's baptism, even while his minions are slaughtering his enemies by the dozen. 

Some might interpret this scene as a portrayal of Catholic cynicism. To my mind, however, the scene is intended to depict Michael Corleone as utterly deprayed, as someone who can participate in a sacred Catholic ceremoney while simultaneously committing the act of murder.

Elwood and Jake: Two nice Catholic boys
My favorite pro-Catholic movie will always be The Blues Brothers, in which Elwood Blues and Joliett Jake Blues are on "a mission from God" to get $5,000 so they can pay the back taxes needed to keep a Catholic orphanage from closing.  For some reason, they draw the enmity of a neo-Nazi cell. One of the Nazis runs a criminal background check on Jake and discovers he has a criminal record. "He's got a record a mile long," he smirkingly tells his superior (played by Henry Gibson). "And--he's Catholic."

In the final scene, Jake and Elwood speed down the freeway, pursued by Illinois Nazis, a vicious country-and-western band, the National Guard, and all the cops in Christendom.  "Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration," Elwood prays, "don't fail me now!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From A Distance We Look Like Friends: Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in Post-Modern America

In a recent New York Times article, Samuel Freedman reported on Rick Santorum’s surprising popularity among evangelical Protestants who voted in this spring’s Republican primary elections.  “After more than a century of widespread antipathy between Catholics and evangelical Christians,” Freedman wrote, “a Catholic with Italian immigrant roots from the industrial Northeast has emerged as the favored presidential candidate among evangelicals . . . ” Indeed, writing before Santorum dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Freedman reported that Santorum was apparently more popular with evangelical Protestants than he was among Catholics, who tended to favor Mitt Romney.
What accounts for this “seismic shift” in evangelical Protestant attitudes about Catholics, which this group has historically despised? Freedman offers two explanations. First, evangelical Protestantism is shifting away from denominationalism, which had made anti-Catholicism an article of Protestant theological doctrine. Increasingly, Protestants are joining nondenominational “megachurches”, which do not emphasize doctrine of any kind. Second, as the United States becomes more urbanized, evangelical Protestants are coming in contact with Catholics more frequently, and greater contact is breaking down old prejudices.
These explanations provide a partial explanation for greater friendship between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but I think there are two more fundamental reasons why the two groups have become more respectful toward each other.  First, to the surprise of many Catholics, the evangelical Protestant community has become Catholicism’s staunch ally on fundamental social issues--particularly abortion and same sex marriage. In recent years, Catholics and evangelical Protestants have stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight to persuade state legislatures to turn back abortion by every possible means and to protect the traditional family. It should not be surprising then that evangelical Protestants voted overwhelmingly for Rick Santorum in the Republican primary elections.
Catholics might ask themselves how it came to be that Evangelical Protestants and Catholic stand together against post-modern American social values on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.  Catholic beliefs on these issues are solidly grounded in two thousand years of tradition and theological dogma. In contrast, evangelical Protestants--for the most part anyway--do not base their views on abortion and same sex marriage on doctrine or dogma, because many evangelical Protestant groups rely very little on doctrine and dogma as the foundation of their faith.
No, it seems that for evangelical Protestants, their beliefs on abortion and sexuality are “written on the heart.” Their sympathy with Catholicism on these issues is based on natural law principles--fundamental truths than men and women can understand based on reason. Although it may sound bizarre to say it, evangelicals may be the true Thomists, the true adherents of natural law--at least on the issues of sexuality, marriage, and respect for human life.
Second, Catholics have become more tolerant of non-Catholics. They have abandoned the old doctrine of “No salvation outside the Church” (which has been officially repudiated by the Vatican), and most now embrace the ancient doctrine articulated by Thomas Aquinas: Facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.  “God does not refuse grace to one who does his best” (Hanke, 1974, p. 160).
Although Rick Santorum dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign showed Catholics and evangelical Protestants that we have a great deal in common. As Catholics and Evangelical Protestants gaze together at the cultural landscape of Post-modern America, increasingly we see each other as friends--friends doing our best in a world grown increasingly hostile to their mutually-shared traditional Christian values.

Freedman, S. G. (2012, March 23). Santorum’s Catholicism proves a draw to evangelicals. New York Times.

Hanke, L. (1974). All mankind is one. DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Tribute to St. Jude's Chapel in Dallas, Texas

St. Jude
St. Jude is the patron saint of desperate cases, so he is an appropriate patron for St. Jude’s Chapel in downtown Dallas. Squeezed between commercial buildings on Main Street, the little chapel looks like a desperate case--a down-at-the-heels interloper among the dazzling skyscrapers of urban Dallas. Although it is located across the street from Neiman-Marcus’s flagship store, St. Jude’s is the antithesis of all that Neiman-Marcus represents. Neiman-Marcus symbolizes elegance, refinement and affluence, while St. Jude’s Chapel’s storefront facade and bright mosaic-tile d├ęcor are decidedly unfashionable and a bit scruffy.

And that is why St. Jude’s Chapel is my favorite Catholic Church.  I like the fact that I must enter and exit through the gift shop, which is stocked with holy cards, inexpensive statues of the saints, and St. Jude musk-scented air fresheners that I can buy and hang on the rearview mirror of my car. I like the fact that the chapel has substituted moist sponges for holy water in the fonts at the entrance doors. And I like the fact that someone has thoughtfully placed big bottles of hand sanitizer next to the sponges.
Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day wrote that she was attracted to the Catholic Church as a young woman because it was the Church of the poor. “It was the Irish of New England, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, it was the great mass of the poor, the workers, who were the Catholics in this country,” she wrote, “and this fact in itself drew me to the Church” (Day, 1952, p. 107). Surely Dorothy would feel at home in this eccentric little chapel where Catholic working people and the poor come to worship.

During the time I lived near St. Jude’s Chapel, it had no regular pastor, and an elderly priest came out of retirement to celebrate daily Mass.  I am sorry to say I have forgotten his name. I recall he had a distinctive way of concluding the general confession. “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us for our sins, and bring us to . . .” and then he would pause expectantly and say “What?” to the congregation. And we would dutifully complete his sentence by chanting, “Everlasting life.” 
“That’s right,” the old priest always replied. “I guarantee it.”

St. Jude’s Chapel is located at 1521 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. The chapel provides daily Mass at 11:40 AM on Mondays through Fridays and two Masses on Sundays--9:30 AM and 11:30 AM. A novena to St. Jude always follows the Mass.  For more information, visit the chapel’s web site at

Day, D. (1952). The long loneliness. New York: Harper.

Champlin, J. M. (1986). The mystery and meaning of the Mass. New York: Crossroads Publishing Company.