BY EVAN WELCHER
I’ve been watching this film over and over again. It arrived in the post one fine day from Netflix. I still get DVDs from Netflix in the mail. There’s something about the anticipation of waiting for a new film to arrive in the post that is reminiscent of the innocence of long gone Christmas mornings of yore, if Christmas day fluctuated that is, and it certainly would be fun if it did.
2014’s “Calvary” stars Brendan Gleeson as world-weary Irish priest, Father James.
The premise of the film is as such: a man walks into Father James’ confessional and calmly tells him he will kill him in one week as recompense for years of rape he suffered at the hands of a now deceased Priest, not because Father James is a bad Priest but precisely because he is a good Priest.
He recognizes the man’s voice as belonging to one of his parishioners.
The remainder of the film shows Father James wrestling with the natural urge to defend himself from the very sheep he has been called to feed. Here in this drama the Sermon On The Mount is warring with the Lord’s restoration of Peter (Matthew 5 V.S. John 21). In order to feed the sheep the Pastor must get close to the little wooly beasty. Some sheep have fangs. Loving people is a painful vocation.
Rather than spending his last week on Earth trying to preserve his own life, Father James spends his last week giving his potential murderer the opportunity to take another path.
I don’t happen to be a Catholic Priest, but I have often felt like a small town parish Priest. I embarked on my vocation as Pastor when I was single, and now I find myself to be a widower. Father James enters the priesthood after his wife died from a lengthy illness. His daughter inquires about the lack of pictures of her mother in his stark quarters.
“I don’t need a photograph to remember your mother. “
“Memories fade, that’s what’s so terrible about them.”
“No, they don’t, not really.”
There can be something lonesome and cold about the mundane toil of shepherding.
Father James spends the rest of his last week on Earth caring for his flock. Films often romanticize small town life. They can’t help it, not really. Imagine stumbling upon a town filled with photogenic people whose every witty retort has been polished by a team of SNL writers. Real small towns aren’t like the “Gilmore Girls” Stars Hollow.
So it is that most young men imagining God’s call upon their lives do not have the imagination to see themselves shepherding on the prairie. Some have even spiritualized this aversion to flyover country in the name of Church growth and… influence.
The town adulteress pays this compliment to Father James,
“You know that’s what I’ve always liked about you Father, you’re just a little too sharp for this Parish.”
The Pastor of Christ’s Church must learn to weigh souls rather than merely counting them. The Pastor of Christ’s Church must find beauty in all the redeemed, for they are covered in the blood of the lamb. C.S. Lewis famously wrote that there are no ordinary people. It is hard to love people whom you feel are beneath you.
I have learned as I have gone shepherding through these sacred hills and hollows that I know very little about the people in my care. Not because I don’t care, or have been reticent, but because the members of my Church are everlasting vessels of God’s mercy. In Christ they are destined to be infinite. And as difficult as it might be for you to fathom, here they all are residing in a town without one Starbucks. Not a one.
Father James spends his last week on earth tending to:
The suicidal daughter.
The drug addict.
The rich young ruler.
The homosexual prostitute.
The booze snatching urchin.
Every one of these stereotypical roles is likely being played in your Church. The human condition is like clockwork. This might seem to contradict all the drivel I just wrote about everybody being special, but this is what is maddening about the vocation of Pastor. We spend years playing our role. We scratch the surface and cover it up again with dust, writing off these wonderful vessels of mercy for whom Christ shed His blood. Every week we proclaim pardon. Every week we proclaim “Christ For You.” And every week everybody returns to same old ghastly abysmal caricatures.
One time I found myself at a hotel after a conference. The younger generation was sitting around talking about bands with banjos, or something like that. I left before I shocked everybody with my utter ambivalence toward bands with banjos. I found a group of old Pastors talking shop. One Pastor was talking to an older Pastor about all the suffering he had endured at the hands of his congregation. The older man told him to continue to turn the other cheek. He told him to suffer like Jesus for his congregation. He told him to be Jesus to his Church.
The townsfolk end up killing Father James’ dog, and burning down the Church.
Then they blow his brains out on the beach.
This movie may sound like a downer. Have you read the Scriptures lately? There is no suffering that the grace of God cannot redeem for His good will. Recall to your memory the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Evan Welcher is senior pastor of First Christian Church in Glenwood, Iowa. He graduated with a B.S. in Biblical studies from Emmaus Bible College in 2005. Evan’s goal in ministry is to stir up love for Jesus Christ by the giving of great care and fidelity to the teaching of the scriptures.