Live a life of ordinary heroism
Following the way of the cross, all the way to Calvary
The movie Calvary tells the story of Father James Lavelle, a good—that point must be stressed, a good—Irish Catholic priest. In the opening scene, in the confessional, Father Lavelle hears a story of horrific abuse, perpetrated by another priest whose crimes have been made unpunishable by his death.
The “penitent” then announces that he will kill Father James instead. He has chosen Father James to die precisely because Father James is a good priest. It is a fitting irony; the innocent will die in place of the guilty. Father James is told that he will die in one week, on the beach—if he shows up.
The rest of the movie is the Passion Week of Father James Lavelle. Played by Brendan Gleeson (perhaps best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise), Lavelle is a man whose large physical stature stands in sharp contrast to his diminished presence in the community. What use is a priest when a community has given up on God? What does he do?
He does what he always does. He visits. He advises. He consoles the living and buries the dead. Above all, he worships. And the days tick off one after another until, in one of the last scenes, Father James is on the beach, there to meet his own Calvary.
Father James is a hero. In contrast to all the heroes, super, semi, and otherwise that parade across our TV and movie screens, though, he is utterly ordinary. He is a man who hopes, who doubts, whose faith is sorely tested. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he is set in town that sees little need for him, would rather be rid of him. (In one heart-rending moment, he is the victim of a father’s vicious suspicion for simply walking beside a young girl. We understand and sympathize both with the father and with Father James. They have both been shaped by evils they did not make). And whether the townspeople want it or not, he does, day in and day out, what he always does. That makes him a hero.
He is a hero to all of us in parish ministry wrestling with how to minister in a world of increasing stresses, decreasing expectations and waning professional influence. His heroism does not lie in some gift or technology that the rest of us do not possess. His cassock does not imbue him with magical powers. He is a hero because he gets on with the job. He is a hero because refuses to abandon the way the cross, but instead follows it even to the beach, to his own Calvary.
Father Lavelle is also a parable for Christians now living in fading sunlight of faith in the West. Here we are, hurrying hither and yon: sociologists writing, and Christian leaders reading, article after article, graph after graph, about millennials and nones and somes and together making suggestions about what we can do to get people back to church, or interested in Jesus, or to reconsider faith. When all the while we know that nightfall is beyond our control.
Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is to stop the futile attempt to fix things and instead, to get on with the job of preaching the gospel, serving the sacraments, visiting the sick, advising the discomfitted, consoling the living and burying the dead. Maybe the future of the Church in Canada lies not in superheroic strategies of rejuvenation, but the ordinary heroism of living our faith simply and fully, all the while recognizing that suffering comes not in spite of doing so, but because of it.
Maybe it’s time to stop avoiding our Calvary and like our Lord, set our faces like flint toward it in the hope that there will be a Sunday morning after.
Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.
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