Spoilers follow. You have been warned.
Having seen 2014’s Calvary for the first time last night I’m still trying to judge whether it’s simply a very good film or an excellent one. I had little love for McDonagh’s previous movie, The Guard, which I found pretty meandering and irrelevant, so I wasn’t expecting Calvary to be half as earnest as it was about seemingly so much. At the same time, I’m just as surprised at the strong reviews it’s received, convinced as I am that it cannot mean half as much to someone outside of ministry.
The film’s protagonist, Fr. James, is a man under sincere vocation. Once married, now a widower, he insists to his daughter that he was not running away when he took his priestly orders; he was answering a call. Of course we should be suspicious when he makes this claim, but we see at the same time that his parish gives him little reason to feel called to anything. Fr. James has not retreated from loss to an idyllic country pastorate with adoring congregants, punctuated by happy christenings and solemn, cathartic administrations of last rights to the elderly faithful. Every tongue on which he places the host in the opening scene is one that lashes him outside of the Mass. Not only does Fr. James bear the loneliness of ordination, not only does he lack the respect of his parish; he is actually resented, abused, mistrusted, even despised—all the while that he is known to be ‘a good priest’ who has ‘done nothing wrong’—because he is a priest, ‘the Church’s representative.’ Calvary takes place in full self-consciousness years after the Church’s sexual-abuse scandals have broken and left the news cycles, and Fr. James lives in that world, which is already a world in which the Church has been deemed irrelevant to the point of farce. Yet in this same world, Fr. James has a vocation to care for souls, and the very collar that empowers him for that vocation is the liability that keeps him from any usefulness in it.
The need of Fr. James in his parish is evident, perhaps even to the non-nihilist non-Christian, even if the point of his being there isn’t. From the adulterous wife sailing glibly between abusive partners, to the suicidal young loner, to the emotionally fragmented male prostitute, to the despairing billionaire on the edge, we see that the priest is not necessarily irrelevant, but his medicine is unpalatable to a body perhaps too sick receive it, perhaps too sick from medicine. Fr. James’ points of genuine human contact not laced with mockery or hostility are minimal and often those in which he’s received more as good man than as a priest, yet he persists where he is unwelcome, unwilling to separate himself from the ministry that devastated his reputation decades in advance of his vows. As a priest he is useless, and even his earnest and persistent presence as a useless priest out love for his parish conveys nothing meaningful to them. In one key scene, a character remarks to Fr. James of a painting, ‘Everything has to mean something. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ On these terms Fr. James is pointless, and it is in his persistent presence without evident point that he has, in the film’s terms, integrity. Even after, drunk, he brawls with a couple members of his parish, he is unrelenting in his conviction of the Church’s vocation, shouting at his spineless foil, Fr. Leary, ‘Why are you a fucking priest at all? You should be a fucking accountant in a fucking insurance firm!’
Fr. James leaves the village only under a looming threat of death, the inciting incident of the film. Atop the mounting pressures around him to relinquish his integrity and accept his pointlessness, facing Christlike his murderer at the appointed place and time now seems equally pointless, even suicidal. What’s the point of a self-sacrificial death offered up in love to one’s enemy if it has no meaning for those to whom it’s offered? Changing from his iconic cassock for the first time in the film, Fr. James retreats to the airport* to evade a useless death. But as he is about to board his plane he sees the coffin of a traveler whose last rights he had administered in an earlier scene; he watches uneasily with the man’s widow as the bag-throwers lean irreverently over the box as they chat. In the next scene, Fr. James is returning to his parish, to face his death after all. Why? Because in the world of the film—in our world—death has become meaningless, and life with it: one man wants Fr. James to get him a gun so he can shoot himself before his health declines further; another man can’t decide if he wants to kill himself or join the army so he can kill other people; his daughter already attempted suicide; and the very nature of the death threat against him seeks to multiply violence more than it seeks justice. For the integrity of Fr. James, death cannot be left to meaninglessness, lest it soil life with insignificance, and he will insist on this by receiving his death in a way that those who trade in its idea cheaply cannot: face-forward, unblinking, in the witness of his murderer. It is a pointless act of courage, and a meaningless act of love, but Fr. James’ life of vocation hangs or falls with it; without it, his ministry of presence would be retroactively as meaningless, as pointless, as his parish believed. Without being willing to die as a priest, his living as a priest could have no hope of meaning, and his peculiar acts of love too would have been surrendered to pointlessness.
My viewing of Calvary is very much colored by the trepidation I’m experiencing while looking to re-enter pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry as I conceive it is parish-based, a vicarship over a community’s ensouled bodies that lacks all the glamour that Calvary denies, and while our congregations are often appreciative and hospitable to its servant leaders, the wider world (the wider parish) is not. The wider world of post-Christendom has no room for pastors, if any room for the Church. We are irrelevant; we are pointless; we are, perhaps at best, patiently entertained as relics. But those with a vocation to ministry, who cannot be accountants at an insurance firm, know that our usefulness does not depend on how useful we are and that our ‘point’ is not lost in pointlessness. Death bears its own meaning, a meaning in part yet to be unveiled, and we will labor uselessly to the point of death for those who do not understand or appreciate or receive our love for them—Christ’s love for them. Our pointless presence and useless toil are an act of love, for we refuse to sell short what it is by packing it in or going into business as something other than the Church. We are assured enough in a vocation to our parishes which needs no ‘point,’ which shares its pointlessness with Gød’s love. As I watched Calvary last night, at least, I was assured of this vocation.