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TV drama looks at city priest


In the hierarchy of Catholic popular culture and the literary mythology of the priesthood, the city priests -- the “hoodlum priest,” the “waterfront priest” -- are the heroes. They are, bluntly, the real priests.

And myth and reality are not far apart.

They, like Jesus, belong to the poor, the victims, the junkies, the lepers of contemporary society. In a way that their suburban parish, university campus and diocesan chancery counterparts are not, they are daily face to face with the lost souls whom the prophets and gospels single out as the Lord’s favored ones.

If they once had shirts with cuffs and cufflinks, they have given them to beggars; if they have dinner at a good restaurant, it is because an old friend gives them a treat; if they have a few bucks to hand to a street beggar, it is because a stranger after Mass has pressed a $20 bill into their hand and said, “Father, use this for the poor.”

They live alone and they are worked to death.

Fr. John P. McNamee’s Diary of A City Priest attracted deserved attention when it first appeared and now has become the basis of a TV drama.

Its model, of course, is Georges Bernanos’ great classic, The Diary of a Country Priest (1936), which was not really a diary, but a novel in diary form, of a naive and saintly young French curé who embraces poverty -- he would be uncomfortable having a good restaurant meal while his parishioners were hungry -- and dies alone of cancer, struggling to love as Christ calls him to do. French director Robert Bresson’s 1950 film is as bleak and brilliant as the book.

McNamee’s story leads us through about a year of his lonely life in St. Malachy’s, an inner-city, African-American, Philadelphia parish, with a cadre of white former parishioners and friends who return for special events and respond to his desperate fund-raising appeals.

He must deal with 18 to 20 callers a day, drug addicts who need a few dollars for another fix and “car fare” to transport them to a job, or hungry families to be fed with canned goods from the parish pantry. When he’s not answering the door or dealing with beggars on the street, he’s listening to the pain of old ladies in the local hospital or accompanying parishioners to court.

Fr. John lets his diary -- which he expects to publish -- know he is not 100 percent happy with the church: So many of his friends drop out of the priesthood; he sees the value of celibacy (it frees him to serve), but he is very lonely; he is depressed that young men do not want to follow him into the priesthood; his fellow priests give irrelevant sermons and have no comprehension of what ordinary people must endure.

He prays and he reads. Simone Weil is quoted ad nauseam. Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Leon Bloy, Commonweal, NCR and John Henry Newman are almost as present to him as the children in his school.

He escapes briefly to Ireland for a month of retreat and renewal but is soon back in what the reader, perhaps more than the writer, sees as an ultimately destructive grind. Of course, he does not tell us his whole life. But he makes it clear that at 58 he sees himself as getting old and worn out. And he keeps blowing up. Under pressure he loses his temper and screams at people.

I close the book with two questions. First, how can the Philadelphia archdiocese -- or any diocese -- leave a man alone for 20 years in a job that, no matter how well he does it, is destroying him? Perhaps one answer is that no ambitious clergyman wants a thankless job like that.

Secondly, how can a book that is really a collection of disconnected episodes, with no developed characters other than the narrator, and that has no unified narrative -- no beginning, middle and end -- be a successful TV drama?

Philadelphia writer and director Eugene Martin, whom Father Mac baptized 37 years ago, and who has won awards in various film festivals, has tried to stay faithful to both the book and its inspiration, Bresson’s film, even though there is no way that low-budget color video, with the verisimilitude of home movies, can match the unrelenting grimness of Bresson’s black and white.

Martin involved Fr. Mac, his star David Morse, and Fr. Mac’s assistant, Sr. Cecelia, in writing the script. He filmed interiors at St. Malachy’s itself and exteriors in another neighborhood that seemed cinematically more authentic.

He toned down the character of Father Mac, made him 10 years younger, subdued to the point of phlegmatic blandness -- as if on tranquilizers -- as he trudges through each day interrupted every five minutes by hungry vagrants at the door, phone calls in the night, or his secretary who pops her head into his bathroom where he sits trying to write the diary on which the film is based.

As in the book, there is -- refreshingly -- not a word on the controversies that obsess today’s Catholicism: birth control, abortion, excommunications, women’s ordination, pedophilia, celibacy, clerical infighting or liberation theology. This, of course, could be attributed to either the narrowness of Father Mac’s vision, or to a desire to sell the book by not offending traditional readers, or to his conviction that nothing matters more than his poverty-stricken neighbors.

The one intrusion of the outside world is a reference to the many thousands of dollars spent to fly Philadelphians to Rome to celebrate their new cardinal’s red hat when Father Mac is trying to come up with bail money to keep a parishioner out of jail. Yet, Father Mac is, fortunately, worldly enough to allow himself that fleeting vacation in Ireland, which grants him some brief quiet but no lasting relief from his daily grind.

The director’s challenge in a made-for-TV film like this is to both portray a real live person, who, we know from his book, is a complex and troubled man, and also dramatize his highly intellectual spirituality.

Here he only half succeeds. In a gimmick more suited for “Touched by an Angel” than inspired by Bresson, the saints who people his diary appear in person to cheer him up. St. Malachy himself descends from his stained glass window and promises those tickets to Ireland. St. Theresa (a blond), who has apparently caught up on her reading in heaven, quotes Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, advising him to “be there” for his neighborhood. St. Francis of Assisi stops by to fix the boiler and do church repairs. This is a sentimentality to which the book never stoops. But this is TV.

And how can the TV version end a story that, in print, does not actually end -- in the sense of closure -- but stops? Answer: very well. How does a worked-to-death priest, drained dry by the endless line of poor black faces at his kitchen door, keep going? By prayer. The Eucharist. By the love of a handful of co-workers and friends. By the presence of grace in rare moments of tangible success -- a college scholarship for one of his young men, the wedding of one of his staff. Father Mac describes himself as “a most incomplete man,” but as the bride and groom process down the aisle at the end of Mass, we know that the priest’s “completeness” is accomplished in the love of the married couple, and that the applause that arises from the congregation is for him as well.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001