We often talk about the need positive role models in the media today, but we rarely talk about the need for priests as role models; they are largely absent from today’s modern media landscape. And when they do happen to be included in a television show or a movie, they are frequently presented as older gentlemen spaced out on God who insists on calling everyone he meets “my child” and who inhabit a world few if any of us could reach… and might not want to if we could. Characterizations that on some visceral gut level has the opposite effect of being inspiring.
Which is one of the many reasons I am grateful for the release of the new Robert Rodriguez film Machete. In the interests of full disclosure, films by Robert Rodriguez have been guilty pleasures of mine for a very long time. But when I first saw the trailer for Machete with Cheech Marin as a vigilante cleric…
Priest: “I took a vow of peace… and now you want me to kill all of these men?”
Machete: “Yes bro… I mean, Padre.”
Priest (shrugging): “I’ll see what I can do.”
That’s right, this priest does not only pray for justice… HE DISPENSES IT!!! [HMMM… HMMM… HAAWW… HAAWWW!!!]
Okay, I can imagine that my Christian morality teacher is somewhere reading this with his head buried in hands, sobbing uncontrollably, and wondering how he had failed me. But that’s why it’s a guilty pleasure. Besides, there has always been a tongue-in-cheek, comic book unreality to Rodriguez’s movies in which the director lets his audience know that even HE knows what is being presented is ridiculous. Trust me, I did not find ironic entertainment when I saw the very realistic violence of Saving Private Ryan… and I’ve still been a little too nervous to see The Hurt Locker, as important as both of those films are.
Of course, I am also not actually suggesting that a gun-totting Cheech Marin is a positive role model for priests. When the trailer alone violates at least four basic tenets of Catholic theology, it pretty much takes itself out of the running as material that can be used by any religious vocation office. But at the very least, it does present the priest as a human being who struggles (or at least tries to struggle) with all of the flaws the rest of humanity does… and I never saw Bing Crosby do that in The Bells of Saint Mary.
Ironically enough, there is another Robert Rodriguez movie that actually has played a big role in my vocational journey. 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn did not feature a priest but a preacher (played by Harvey Keitel) who himself was struggling with the rigors of following the life of Christ. I frequently return to it when I am struggling with my vocation, when I am facing hard questions, and when the sirens of doubt have been blasting through my brain.
Every person who… chooses the service of God as his life’s work has something in common. I don’t care if you’re a preacher, a priest, a nun, a rabbi or a Buddhist monk. Many, many times during your life you will look at your reflection in a mirror and ask yourself: am I a fool?
Later on in the film, when the entire cast is trapped in a bar across the border and while being attacked by vampires, Keitel’s character faces a moment of truth. With the undead beating down the door, George Clooney realizes that Keitel has the power to turn water into Holy Water, which can be used as a weapon. That, however, was not going to work if the preacher’s faith isn’t what it used to be.
Clooney: “Now which are you, a faithless preacher or a mean, m*&^%$#!#%@ servant of God?”
Keitel: “I’m a mean… mmmmmmmmm… servant of God.”
After which Keitel blessed the water and kills vampires. And while the overall material might not be wholly consistent with just-war theory, the Theology of the Body, or even Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor, I have usually found inspiration in those stories in which the struggle takes place. Even if the struggle is completely ridiculous, I’ve usually found myself just a little bit closer to those higher ideals.