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!"

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