Paul wrote to Titus, a man he’d sent to work in the churches in Crete, “Do not let anyone despise you” (Titus 2:15). I’ve often wondered how anyone can be responsible for the attitudes of others. How can you keep other people from despising you? I guess a place to start would be not to behave like the young cleric of Ambricourt in Robert Bresson’s classic 1951 film, The Diary of a Country Priest.
This French film was acclaimed in its time (winning the Venice Film Festival along with other prestigious international awards) and is still highly regarded in the filmmaking and critical community. But if you’ve been here before, you know the drill. We aren’t here to judge the film, but rather the church and clergy in the film.
Admittedly, the Young Priest Without a Name has challenges coming into his first parish in a small town. The town seems set against him sight unseen. There was a prickly situation in much of Europe for the last couple of centuries where people had to financially support the church whether they liked it or not. That alone might make me want to give such a church a thumbs down. But the young priest makes a bad situation worse.
There’s a bit of pastoral advice I’ve received that might seem old fashioned. For a clergyman (yes, clergyman), don’t be alone with a woman (or girl). I know Billy Graham followed this advice through his ministry, and the priest in the film would have been much better off if he followed it, even though he is never accused of sexual impropriety.
Early in the film we see the priest teaching a catechism class of young girls (one of the few times in the film we see him doing any actual ministry). The girls conspire to pretend that all but one of the girls is ignorant about the Lord’s Supper. When the priest asks the one girl to stay behind after class, he soon discovers it was a plot to mock him. He falls for it completely. He is widely derided for his lack of social skills. Social skills are kind of helpful skills for ministry.
In his parish, there is also a delicate situation involving a power couple, a count and countess. Their daughter suspects her father is unfaithful to her mother. The priest meets with the teenage daughter alone and later with the countess alone. Both situations lead to rumors of the priest giving harsh council. Because the priest put himself in one person’s word against another situations, he has no way to combat the rumors.
Sadly, the priest also has health problems. He has a weak stomach and can’t each much. He seems to be taking the council of Paul in I Timothy 5:23 of drinking wine for his stomach. But when people only see him drinking wine and eating bread soaked in wine, they assume he’s a drunkard. It doesn’t help he never tells anyone about his health problems (spoiler – he has stomach cancer).
His biggest problem as a pastor – he says he can’t pray. Now, even Mother Teresa admitted to dark nights of the soul, but she kept praying. This guy confesses -- often -- that he can’t pray, which is sort of his main job.
You really have to wonder if a guy is a great pastor when Martin Scorsese says that he was a model for Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver (you know, the guy who talks to a mirror while holding a gun and saying, “You talking to me?”)
Toward the end of the priest’s life, he does come up with a pretty profound theological realization, “All is grace.” Just too bad he never figures out a way to share God’s grace with other people. Two steeples to the church in this film.