Monday, January 05, 2009

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Fr. Flynn

Why did he get to be pastor of a parish?
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The film "Doubt" does not tell us if Sr. Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, went to diocesan authorities with her suspicions concerning the priest's relationship with an altar boy. Although we assume she did not, since she mentions to Sr. James that the Monsignor of the parish wouldn't believe her anyway - hinting at the ol' boys club thing, thus she confronted Fr. Flynn herself. Yet since Fr. Flynn's direct superiors may not have been aware of the accusations against him, it would appear there was no cover-up regarding his transfer and appointment as pastor in a different parish. (Historically we know such matters were covered up and men were transferred around.) Nevertheless, Sr. Aloysius seemed affected by the irony of it all. She got rid of Fr. Flynn, he in turn was rewarded with a parish - where he could be in charge. (In those days the pastor of a parish could sometimes be likened to a feudal lord.)
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Assuming something really was wrong with Fr. Flynn, that he was indeed a pederast - someone who involves himself sexually with adolescent boys - and that he may have had a history of inappropriate relationships with boys, something the former pastor would not have spoken of if Sr. Aloysius would have asked him - although a nun at the former parish would, we understand the ever so subtle statement the film makes about that ol' boys club protection society. Since we have all lived through the shock of the sex scandal and cover-up in the Church, as well as the economic crises it fomented in various dioceses, Catholics in the United States cannot be surprised about that. (Although Mirimax should be congratulated for not exploiting it.)
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Doing everything right.
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There is a short scene where Flynn is at dinner in the rectory with the pastor and another assistant. The monsignor has a tall drink and is smoking a cigar, and he appears to be thoroughly entertained by Fr. Flynn - there seems to be a great camaraderie amongst the three men. They are just regular guys, living and working together; they smoke, they drink, they guffaw - they're just guys who happen to be priests. That was important back then, and to some extent, remains so today I think. Though they wore a cassock, prayed the office, said a Latin Mass (quickly), and fulfilled their priestly duties - it was important not to appear too holy or rigid in those days. Make 'em laugh.
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Although some Catholic clergy may have complained of a cultural anti-clericalism at the time, I believe it was never so pronounced as was the secularism that was admitted into seminaries and priestly life. For the most part, Catholics and non-Catholics alike seemed to be impressed with Roman Catholic clerics and habited nuns. Especially with Cardinals Cushing and Spellman, and Bishop Sheen featured in the news and on TV in their brightly colored cappas, and so on. A priest walking down the street in his clerical clothing always got a nod and some sign of respect from passers-by. (So did nuns for that matter.)
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Going my way priests.
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Priests like Fr. Flynn performed their duties faithfully of course, although I think it was becoming increasingly important for secular clergy at the time to be perceived as the regular guy - Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley. Wearing sweatshirts, playing sports, rough-housing, teasing, joking, and so on. Outward piety and devotion outside of Mass wasn't always evident or desired. (Nuns playing baseball were hot too - I think June Allyson played one.)
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In fact, I remember more than one parish priest telling me or my dad that it wasn't healthy for me to be spending so much time reading the lives of the saints, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, praying the rosary, and so on. I recall a friend of my brother's telling him that I could never get into the minor seminary he would be entering because I was too pious. I don't know if what his friend said was true or not - but that was the message I got all along. Much later, another friend told me how one of his school mates was reprimanded for kneeling in the cloister of a Benedictine abbey he entered to say a prayer before a very large crucifix - the monk told him, "We don't do such pious things here."
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Back to "Doubt".
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I digress however. Maybe I'm over thinking the film, but all of the above is what I gleaned from that short scene in the rectory, as well as Sr. Aloysius' surprise Fr. Flynn became a pastor elsewhere. Flynn came off as one of the guys - guys could never admit anything like pederasty or homosexuality - that was unheard of. No member of the laity could ever believe it, much less a nun. Unless of course you were Sr. Aloysius; a practical nun, a mature nun, a woman of experience, a spiritually dried up old bag who could see through all the lace and satin, smoke and bells, titles and honors. She knew about the ol' boys club. Certainly not everyone in the hierarchy or priesthood was like that - she knew it and I know it - but there were those who were.
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They often appeared to be the most normal, most integrated personality of the bunch. Often academically brilliant, good humored, gregarious - attractive personalities, and solidly Catholic, albeit not at all rigid. Of course many evolved to be more progressive, but not all - which is the tricky part. Some did all the right things spiritually - perhaps even appearing more pious or devout, whatever the case - they were masters at the art of deception, perhaps even deceiving themselves that what they did was loving and compassionate, but not at all evil. I think Fr. Flynn said something about that when he was speaking with Sr. Aloysius - he emphasized the importance of love and compassion in dealing with people.
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Love and compassion frequently covers a multitude of sins.
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Note: I am not suggesting priests should act or behave in any particular way, that they shouldn't be "guys" - or that normal dinner conversation, smoking or drinking, as shown in the film is bad or suspect. In the context of the story, I caught a subliminal message of an old boys club attitude, as well as how easily a perpetrator of sexual crimes could possibly blend in with his peers, and so on.
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That's all.

8 comments:

  1. David3:53 PM

    The more I read the more I get the feeling that there were additional scenes in the flcik that did not make it to the general release....anyone know about that?

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  2. Excellent reflections, Terry.

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  3. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Why do so many, when referring to priests saying the Latin Mass, always add that they 'quickly' said it? Why don't people say the same when referring to the current Ordinary Form? I somehow doubt that those priests that quickly said a Latin Mass said a NO Mass any slower. If daily Mass lasts longer than 20 minutes, it's because the priest was late (at least at the parishes I've been a member of). If someone doesn't like the Latin Mass, that is cool with me. I like both forms and usually go to NO. It just seems like people that don't care for the Latin Mass often add a little dig without appearing to add one.

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  4. Anonymous - please make up a name or something, okay?

    My experience growing up: Because my family moved frequently, I attended several Catholic schools and by the time I was in 8th grade I had been in 6 different parishes in St. Paul. Perhaps it is my imagination, but every priest zipped through the Mass - I followed Mass with my missal so I know - even the school sisters made comments.

    The only parish where the Mass seemed to be consistently reverent was Sacred Heart, staffed by the OFM's. As for the NO, most priests I have encountered over the years have said the Mass reverently and deliberately - meaning they have taken care to pray at an understandable pace. (I also took care to attend parishes that were faithful to the rubrics.)

    The only priest I ever encountered who zipped through his NO Mass was Fr. Kelly - now deceased - who was known as "shot-gun" Kelly around these parts. His style was typical of the Latin usage priests I grew up with. Most of these BTW, as well as the most devout sisters, were highly anticipating the use of the vernacular at Mass, and couldn't wait for the reforms.

    Be assured I have no problem with the Latin Mass at all - I grew up with it. I'm just not driving across town to assist at it when a perfectly valid NO Mass is offered in my home parish.

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  5. David3:08 PM

    Just to put my two cents in...I do not recall the Tridentine Mass so I cannot comment on it but most priests I have known prayed the NO Mass at a pretty good pace (even if they sadly ignored the rubrics). BUT just last week I was off work and able to enjoy the luxury of a daily Mass. It began at 9AM and the final blessing was given at 9:17AM. No kidding. (Note to self: next time you go to Mass at Our Lady of the Whirlwind Parish, bring a cannister of oxygen for the old ladies trying desperating to finish the Offertory repsonses while the priest has already moved onto the Preface.) :)

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  6. David - LOL! I actually like a 'fast' Mass, especially a quick homily - a little feverino. I like to be quiet in church and so I love the thanksgiving period after Mass.

    I used to be thrilled with "shot-gun" Kelly - fast Mass, no homily - oh, and when I went to confession to him - no lecture - he was a wonderful priest.

    Sorry I gave the impression I disaproved of fast Masses. ;)

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  7. Anonymous10:47 PM

    Fr. Flyn did not rush through the Mass but it was incorrectly filmed to have him saying the words of consecration or other words while genuflecting and holding up the host and the altar boys ringing the bells. Priests wear the stole under the chasuable...he got it correct for Advent, but not Ordinary Time. Perhaps Sr. Aloyius had had a scandalous incident in another parish and never got over it, and was suspicious of every young priest since. she never seemed to pray,,,of course, no one in the film seemed to pray.

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  8. Yeah the ol' fast confession...man I sure appreciated that as a youngin' after a um..."busy" party weekend. We had a confessor, Fr Walsh, whose "script" was the same for all sins and man his line was always the longest. No questions asked, except "Are you sorry for your sins and are you resolved to do better in the future". Hey thats the bottom line, right? Devout people would grumble and call him disrespectful of the sacrament. Teens and young adults flcoked to his confessional leaving the pastor's nearly empty.

    Some people said he might as well be one of those modernized operators they encountered. With all things anchored to technology I began thinking about the possibilities for "Express Confession"...you know...swipe your card and push some buttons and have an automated menu.

    "For English, press 1"

    "If you have mortal sins to confess, press 2; otherwise press the pound sign."

    "Using your touch-tone keys, press the commandments against which you have sinned. Be sure to follow each commandment numeral by the star sign."

    (Penitent presses: 6*, 9*)

    "I am sorry, we are experiencing a high demand for absolution for these sins and all our confessors are presently busy with other sinners. Your confession is very important to us. Please stay on the line and the next available confessor will listen to your confession. Thank you."

    (Machine starts playing religious Musak tunes...just when I am getting into the third verse of "Lord of the Dance" I hear a click and the voice continues...)

    "We are experiencing an unusualyl high demand during this holiday season for Express Confessions. Thank you for staying on the line. Your call is very important to us..."

    I groan, hang up, and long for the days of Fr. Walsh's quickie confessions which weren't so bad after all.

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