I mentioned yesterday that I watched some faith-affirming films last week. I watched three of them that I want to discuss on this blog. The first one was the 2014 romantic comedy Christian Mingle, which I wrote about yesterday. The second is the 1944 movie The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as a progressive priest. I will write about that movie today, in this post. The third is A Man Called Peter, a 1955 film about the preacher Peter Marshall. I will probably write about that movie next week. I have a book review to write tomorrow, my church write-up to write on Friday, and another book review to write on Monday, so I will most likely write my post on A Man Called Peter on Tuesday.
The Keys of the Kingdom! Like I said, Gregory Peck plays a progressive priest, Father Francis Chisholm. The movie had familiar faces: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who was on the Ten Commandments; Vincent Price, who was also on the Ten Commandments, and many horror movies; Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy on It’s a Wonderful Life (but he was without the pet bird in Keys of the Kingdom).
Francis Chisholm was a progressive priest. What’s that mean, exactly? Well, he was somewhat of an inclusivist when it came to salvation. In a comical scene, he asks if God really values believing in doctrines, when such a belief is largely a matter of where a person was born. The priest sternly retorts, “The answer to your question is ‘Yes!'”
Father Chisholm wonders if he can find a place to fit in, and he goes to China to minister there. There are many events in this movie, and I won’t discuss all of them here. In this post, I want to focus on Father Chisholm’s relationship with the Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica. I will use that as a starting-point for further discussion.
Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother did not get along at first. A significant factor was that she and her fellow nuns arrived in China before Father Chisholm was even expecting them, so Father Chisholm was greeting them in his dirty clothes! He didn’t make a very good first impression! They started their relationship off on the wrong foot!
Father Chisholm offers to help the nuns, but the Reverend Mother continually spurns his offers of help. She and her fellow nuns want to keep to themselves and contemplate. When Father Chisholm’s atheist doctor friend Willie Tulloch (Uncle Billy) is on his deathbed and Father Chisholm refuses to shove religion down his friend’s throat, the Reverend Mother leaves the room in disgust.
In the course of the movie, we learn of the roots of the Reverend Mother’s disdain for Father Chisholm. Essentially, she envies him spiritually. She grew up in a privileged background and was somewhat of an elitist, so she looked down on the economically impoverished Chinese. But she hated her elitist attitude, for she thought that she as a Christian should be better than that. She envied how easy humility and service came to Father Chisholm. She believed that he was closer to God than she was, and she resented him for that.
Father Chisholm’s old friend Monsignor Angus (played by Vincent Price) comes to visit Father Chisholm in China. Angus is rising quite well in the Catholic hierarchy, and Father Chisholm feels a bit inadequate in comparison to his friend on account of that. Angus downgrades the lowly Chinese and suggests that Father Chisholm befriend the wealthier Chinese, since they can benefit Father Chisholm and the church. Father Chisholm refuses to do so and criticizes Angus’ attitude.
After this encounter, the Reverend Mother confesses and apologizes to Father Chisholm about her elitism and her resentment of him. Perhaps Monsignor Angus’ attitude reminded her of the attitude that she was fighting within herself! She tells Father Chisholm that Monsignor Angus is not worthy to kiss Father Chisholm’s shoes! Father Chisholm tells her that there is no need for her to apologize. Later in the movie, Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother are old, and Father Chisholm is jealous about Angus becoming a bishop. He feels that Angus has accomplished something with his life, whereas he has not. The Reverend Mother replies that Father Chisholm is closer to God than Angus is.
I could identify with the Reverend Mother, in the sense that she was trying to be a good Christian but realized that she fell short, and she resented someone because she thought that Christianity came so easy to him. Later in the movie, she arrives at a greater sense of peace with herself and with Father Chisholm: she serves however she can, and her admiration of Father Chisholm no longer entails her beating herself up for falling short. Father Chisholm’s acceptance of her most likely played a role in her growth. He did not berate her for her spiritual shortcomings but was an accepting presence in her life.
Do we see something similar in Christian communities today, or in the world in general? There are many Christians who look down on others for their shortcomings, when they themselves have their own share of shortcomings. The reason for their attitude may be that they try so hard to be righteous, to walk on the straight and narrow, so they have disdain for those who do not seem to try as hard, or who fall short. They are not like Father Chisholm, loving and accepting people where they are.
Conversely, when someone tries to manifest a Father Chisholm-like attitude, many people may not feel that the person is being real or authentic. No one is that good, right? There must be some resentment underneath that Pollyannish attitude! And, in many cases, there may be! The person is trying his best to manifest a proper attitude, against emotions inside of himself that rush in the opposite direction.
Hopefully, we can become more loving and accepting of others, where they are. May God grant me the strength to have that kind of attitude!