Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mass Appeal (1984)

The young seminarian's shorts (satin, green, and oh so short) are extremely eighties. He wears them when he runs, which is daily, for eight to ten miles. He believes this will help him keep chaste. He's even wearing those shorts when he visits the church pastored by Father Tim Farley, who has the reputation of being the best priest in the diocese (if so, poor diocese -- in spite of the diocese being very rich).

The seminarian, Mark Dolson (played by Law and Order DA Zeljko Ivanek), and the priest (played by the great Jack Lemmon) are the central characters in this film that examines "Current Catholic Crises" (the name of one of Farley's sermon series). Bill Davis wrote the screenplay based on his play (also called "Mass Appeal"), and in the play these were the only two characters.  The film opens things up, letting us see the church's congregants and the monsignor (Charles Durning), who acts as the villain.

 As always, it's the church we are reviewing, not the film, and we get an interesting glimpse of St. Francis Church during Mark Dolson's first visit. Father Farley is finishing up his "Three C's" series with what we learn is "one of his famous dialogue sermons." He says they will be discussing that morning the topic of whether the Roman Catholic Church should ordain women as priests. He asks the congregation to ask questions on the subject. It soon becomes apparent that the reason the priest does such sermons is because they require little preparation. Mark notes that it was women who were faithful to Jesus at His Death through His Resurrection. When Mark asks him substantive questions on the issue, Farley becomes quite irate. He is especially angered when Mark asks for his opinion on the subject. Father Tim doesn't want to do anything as risky as giving an opinion.

Farley goes back to his study to drink wine (one of his favorite occupations) and decide what series of sermons he should begin next week. (Doesn't the church use a Scriptural Lectionary that he could use to plan his sermons?) But then he gets a call from the monsignor about some problems at the seminary (Mark Dolson is one of the problems) which leads Farley to the awesome idea of a sermon series, "The Road to the Priesthood." Why would the average parishioner be interested in that topic?

So, Father Farley is an awful preacher who doesn't look to Scripture for his sermon but relies on lame jokes, but maybe Mark Dolson will prove to be a better preacher? He's a little better, but not much. He wants to preach about the evils of materialism. He condemns those who come to church with "your mink hats and your cashmere coats and blue hair." Farley tells Mark when talking about sin, he should use "we" not "you." This is actually sound advice, but Mark doesn't take it, preferring his own more priggish style of preaching. Also, choosing those three things to condemn makes him sound more than a little misogynistic.

Mark also doesn't seem to feel the need to preach about the Bible. He preaches a sermon about how his family went for jelly donuts after Mass (Farley likes this idea), and another sermon about the death of his tropical fish when he was a child. Both men are useless in the pulpit.

Perhaps though, they are better in other aspects of ministry? Say, in counseling? Well, Father Farley is often seen trying to dodge counseling appointments with "white lies." (Mark constantly confronts the Father about his habit of lying.) He can't avoid seeing a woman whose mother has just passed away. He goes with Mark to see her. As the woman pours out her grief, Farley assures her, "It's all for the best."

Mark later asks why Farley doesn't just listen to people in grief. Farley says it's the job of a priest to spout inanities to those in pain so they will reach a state of "inconsolable grief" that he feels is blessed in some way. He says that if he was counseling a mother who just lost an infant, he's say, "You're young, you can have others" or "Heaven must have wanted another blessing." In other words, he sets out to say the very things that will cause many people to hate the church and leave it.

One interesting thing about the church in the film is the eighties take on controversial issues. It's interesting how the arguments have changed. Mark is bisexual and takes the stand that the church should ordain homosexuals and bisexuals as long as they will remain chaste in ministry. The argument has moved on since then. The question now is whether priests need to remain chaste.
As horrible as the ministry of Father Farley is, Mark takes time to care for the poor, visit prisoners and play basketball with the youth. He singlehandedly saves the church in the film from the lowest rating of one steeple and earns it two.

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