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Film festival attendees mesmerized by the real deal

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

An Irish-American priest from Philadelphia may have looked out of place among the neon-clad skiers and cell-phone-carrying actresses at the Sundance Film Festival. But Fr. John McNamee said that, for the most part, he enjoyed himself among those he called “the beautiful people.”

McNamee flew to the January festival with Eugene Martin, another Philadelphian, whom McNamee baptized as a baby about 30 years ago. “Diary of a City Priest,” a dramatic feature based on a book of the same name by McNamee and directed by Martin, played to sold-out houses in Park City, Utah, and during the post-screening question-and-answer sessions the two men warmed to the crowds.

“It’s a form of homilizing,” McNamee said during an interview in the Sundance media hospitality suite overlooking the spectacular Park City Mountain Resort. “It might be a chance to speak the word where it might not otherwise be said.”

McNamee and Martin share a hope that their film offered both Catholics and non-Catholics insights into a parish priest’s inner life.

“You don’t have realistic portrayals, you don’t hear the authentic voices of priests’ in movies and television, Martin said. “When John speaks to people afterward, people are mesmerized by what the real deal is.”

McNamee, for his part, said he hopes “Diary” portrays his church as a place that reaches beyond its geographic and denominational borders. He quoted English Dominican Fr. Herbert McCabe: “There’s only one community: the human community.” Neighborhoods around the parish, McNamee added, are like dough, and the church can act as leavening.

Martin hailed McNamee as an inspiration to younger priests and to the diverse people living in North Philadelphia. “St. Malachy’s is about a quarter African-American, a quarter Latino and half white families from the suburbs,” he said, adding that the parish has been a sanctuary for Haitian refugees, immigrant farm workers and searchers such as him.

“I’m having a long journey, finding my way spiritually. It’s nice to know the doors are open.”

Philadelphians belong to a dozen or more religious sects, Martin added, but St. Malachy’s remains available to all of them. “In John’s church, you’re welcome. You don’t have to worry about what to say and what to wear.”

Yet McNamee said he knows many people still consider the Catholic church to be insular. “Guys of my generation believe it could be more outgoing and resilient than it is.”

As pastor at St. Malachy’s, McNamee reaches out to his community in fairly mundane ways -- opening a food pantry, helping teenagers apply for college scholarships -- and in an artistic fashion. In his poetry and memoirs, he seeks to tell the truth about his spiritual life.

“I like the conciseness, the crystallization of poetry,” he said.

Martin said he prefers the journal prose of McNamee’s Diary of a City Priest. The pastor wrote those journal entries in a hurry, between Masses, between answering knocks on the food pantry door, meetings with parish schoolteachers, calls to the plumber and trips to parishioners’ court hearings.

“One of my favorite writers is Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories when he didn’t have time to write them,” Martin said. Carver, who as a young man had to support his family with janitorial jobs, “wrote under extreme duress. That brings out another kind of writing.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001