Hollywood’s greatest Christmas movie is a perfect fit for Easter

Hollywood’s greatest Christmas movie is a perfect fit for Easter

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is the unassailable Christmas movie classic. No other Christmas film comes close.

After a life of hard work and sacrifice, George Bailey is on the brink of financial ruin. On Christmas Eve, he resolves to kill himself, so God assigns Clarence, a second class angel, to intervene. Clarence “earns his wings” by dissuading George from suicide. He does this by showing George what the world would be like if George had never existed:

Everyone knows the plot, but I’m surprised how many people have never seen the film. It must be testament to the proliferation of parodies and cultural references, that so many know the story, but so few have watched it.

There are nearly as many interpretations of the movie as there are parodies. When it was released, the FBI considered it subversive propaganda; evidence of the Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Director Frank Capra claimed the very opposite: the film was intended to demonstrate not only “the individual’s belief in himself,” but also “combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

I’ve encountered similarly conflicting interpretations among friends I’ve watched it with. Is George Bailey best characterised by noble sacrifice and generosity, or by self-pity and complaint? Is he a saint, or a patsy? I think the complexity of Jimmy Stewart’s character is the movie’s saving grace, and a complement to the sometimes maudlin excesses of the screenplay.

My own opinion is this: George Bailey is a generous man who loves, but he’s also an angry man who hates. His defects are serious, and he sometimes permits those defects to define him. Despite that, he’s one of cinema’s most attractive characters — probably because we see in him our own selves.

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a film about Christmas. It’s a film about George Bailey’s redemption in and through the cross. You could argue that it’s a better fit for Easter.

Nonetheless, if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it nowThis Christmas if possible!

More competition!

At last count, eighty per cent of weddings in Australia are now conducted by civil celebrants.

That’s bad, insofar as it reflects the triumph of secularism and the reduction of Christianity.

It’s also good, insofar as it demonstrates the demise of “cultural” church weddings. Getting married in a church is now something intentional. I find that the couples whom I prepare for marriage are sincerely open to theological and moral formation. It’s a great opportunity to evangelise.

Still, I’m weary of the growing numbers who look elsewhere for services traditionally ministered by the priest. It started with weddings and funerals. Is sacramental confession next?

Apparently so, by the looks of this sign outside a key cutters in Carlton!


CEO of TJH Council

CEO of TJH Council

While I share people’s criticisms of the TJH Council’s latest report, I’d caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Francis Sullivan is both knowledgeable and thoughtful. I encourage anyone who hasn’t heard him speak to remedy that. He most certainly merits benefit of the doubt.

Psychosexual development and professional oversight

Psychosexual development and professional oversight

Several days ago, I resolved to cite studies which demonstrate there is no causal link between celibacy and sexual abuse.

I’ve changed my mind. The John Jay Report, which is by no means definitive but certainly authoritative, is freely available online, and there is data cited there. The ensuing discussion has raised more interesting points, I think.

Archbishop Fisher, in his public response to last week’s headlines, reiterated the Church’s commitment to clerical celibacy, and commented on a more important cause and remedy:

The Church is now addressing the psycho-sexual development of its personnel directly and giving much more attention to healthy relationships.

But it is a comment which was made on this blog which has really demanded my attention, and provoked my thinking.

The real issue is not celibacy – it is the psychosexual formation provided to seminarians and priests (see the TJHC report, pg. 23). Theologically, celibacy is not a natural vocation – it is supernatural – and therefore requires concerted and consistent efforts to orient the person to the supernatural motivations for celibacy, and to help the person integrate these into their daily living. This requires the intentional development of a congruent culture within seminaries and groups of clergy.

Psychosexual formation cannot possibly be adequately achieved by irregular seminars presented in group settings, for example. Rather, it requires that each seminarian and priest have a personalised relationship with both a spiritual director and a qualified clinical psychologist. That only one seminary in Australia (to my knowledge – Good Shepherd, Sydney) has a clinical psychologist permanently on staff indicates that the majority of bishops still do not understand what is required for the adequate formation of seminarians and priests.

These are compelling points I think. I’d add a few more.

As a seminarian, I was accountable. I was expected to regularly consult a spiritual director. I met with seminary formators to discuss pastoral and academic performance. If I didn’t do this, my lapses were queried and addressed.

But the moment I left the seminary, all these requirements evaporated. I happen to belong to a priestly society which does keep me accountable. I meet with a mentor regularly. I’m expected to frequent sacramental confession and spiritual direction. I’m obliged to make myself available for regular ongoing formation.

I also happen to work with a parish priest who extols oversight and regular debriefing. When we lived in the same presbytery, we would share at least one meal every day. Now that I live an hour away, I meet him in a formal capacity fortnightly, but I’m also encouraged to call him as the need arises. He also schedules periodic reviews.

But all of this is accidental, in the sense that it is neither typical nor obligatory. Why not? The principals and teachers in our Catholic education system undergo regular reviews which facilitates best practice, professional development, and pastoral support.

I honestly can’t understand why priests aren’t subjected to something similar. Maybe there’s a fear that priesthood will be reduced to a professional class. Or maybe it related to the well-founded weariness at bureaucracy. (That’s another post!)

Nonetheless, priestly fidelity is hard work, and it can be emotionally desolate. It doesn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be. In my case it isn’t — thanks to God’s grace, to my fidelity to prayer, and to the care and oversight I receive from the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, and from my parish priest.

Should every seminarian and priest have a personalised relationship with a clinical psychologist? Should every priest receive professional oversight?

I haven’t formulated answers to these questions, but I certainly think they’re worth discussing. These are issues which I’d like to see on the table.

Christian joy

Christian joy

One recent Christmas, I was delayed in Hamilton, and I got to Ballarat a little later than usual. For the whole two hour drive, I was looking forward to the family Christmas.

But when I arrived, things soured. They had opened the presents without me! I grabbed a beer, and engaged in conversation, but only half-heartedly. I gave a lot of one-word answers, and clung to my sullen disagreeability.

But as the Christmas pudding was lit, and the cheers went up, I took a step back and examined the situation. What was wrong with me? I’d been looking forward to this all day! I was surrounded by people I love, and I was dragging them down.

So I snapped out of it. It took a lot of effort — I had to smile through gritted teeth! — but I pretended to be cheerful. It took a while, but of course eventually I was actually as happy as everyone around me.

It’s only human for us to fall into bad moods. There’s nothings sinful about it. It’s perfectly natural. But we are called to something greater. Something supernatural. The joy of the Gospel.

The prayers and readings of the third Sunday of Advent focus on this:

“Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of the Lord’s nativity.”

“I exult for you in the Lord.”

“My souls rejoices in my God.”

Be happy at all times.”

I think this joy we pray for today — the joy of the Gospel — isn’t just a mood. It’s not the same as happiness. Christian joy is a decision. Sometimes, it’s a struggle.

It could well be a struggle at Mass this Christmas. Especially if it’s hot and sticky, we regulars can easily resent the ‘Christmas invasion.’ We’ll see people whom we won’t see again for a whole year. They waltz in, they take our seats, they chat through Mass, the kids run wild, and prayerful recollection is impossible.

I’m exaggerating a little, but you get my drift. There’s good reason to be miserable, or at least annoyed, at Christmas Mass. And that’s precisely what Old Nick wants. Sullen faces; telling glares; spiritual desert. That‘s what he wants the Christmas crowd to experience at church.

But with God’s help, we can turn that on its head. When we foster the joy of Gospel, which is alive in our hearts right now, we can radiate a peace the world cannot give. It’s the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is irresistibly attractive.

I’m not only talking about Christmas Mass of course. I’m talking about those daily instances, when we must choose to frown or smile.

Maybe the secret to all this is humility. Chesterton famously observed that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

More profound is his claim that too much concern for one’s ego, or pride, leads to “the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.” It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it? Ego falsifies the facts by introducing the self.

Joy is closely related to laughter. Chesterton was good at that too. Here’s another quote from him: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they’re generally the same people!”

“Church links celibacy with abuse”

“Church links celibacy with abuse”

Time to start blogging again! The latest issue of The Priest has gone to press, we’ve closed registrations to the international clergy conference I’m helping to organise, and I’ve finally struck a routine in my new parish. Time to blog!

Unfortunately, my first post in a long time is a critical one. I’m loathe to criticise, when there’s such a need to edify. But sometimes criticism is necessary, in defence of the truth.

Today’s Australian quotes the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council‘s Activity Report from December. I’m a great advocate of the TJH Council, and in particular its CEO, Francis Sullivan. I have heard him speak on several occasions, and each time he has spoken uncomfortable truths about the Church with prophetic courage.

But this time, the TJH Council has got it wrong. Its December report claims that “obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse in some circumstances.” In a way this isn’t exactly new. At the Victorian State Parliamentary Enquiry into institutional child abuse, Cardinal Pell acknowledged that celibacy could be a cause for sexual abuse.

But this claim flies in the face of qualifiable psychological research that finds no link between professed and self-adhered celibacy and sexual abuse. I’ll try and find some links … tomorrow. Not today.

The TJH Council goes onto to say that “you can’t have an honest and open discussion about the future without having an honest and open discussion about celibacy. We are placing celibacy on the table.”

I wish they’d take it off again. Celibacy is a distraction. The two major issues, I think, are much broader, and demand focused attention. One is an unhealthy closed-shop clericalism which afflicts the Church. The other is the depraved sexual license which afflicts our society.

In other words, the real problems are cultural and highly complex. It’s tempting to raise an easy-fix issue like priestly celibacy, but it isn’t very helpful.

Christ the King

Christ the King

As the liturgical year is coming to a close, we’re invited to look to the end.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what today’s feast is about: the coming of the Kingdom.

If you and I dare to say, “thy Kingdom come,” we must be ready for Christ to reign in our hearts right now. Jesus cannot reign in a calculating heart, or a divided heart, or a hardened heart. He seeks the generosity and daring of a young heart, which doesn’t know to hold back. This is where Christ reigns.

But we all know — don’t we? — that our past can prevent this. Sin. Destructive relationships. Addictive behaviours. All of these things conspire against a young heart and a simple love.

This is why our Lord gives us the sacrament of reconciliation. In confessions not only are our sins forgiven, but our heart is healed. Our Lord knew — centuries before “the invention of psychotherapy” — that when we name the evil in our lives, it loses its power. The enemy knows that too, which is why this sacrament is under attack. I’ve experienced this as a priest.

For example, when someone approaches me for confession out of the blue, I experience the most irrational annoyance and even anger. Every time. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a good mood or not. If I have time to spare or not. Storm clouds gather. But the moment I smile, and offer a word of encouragement, the clouds lift, as suddenly as they arrived.

Something similar happens during scheduled times of confession. Usually, I’m content to sit and wait for the allotted time, praying and reading if there are no penitents. But sometimes, I’m sorely tempted to leave early. Some task comes to mind, and it’s so urgent! I need to start it now! And here I am, sitting alone in the confessional and wasting time! I’ve learned to clench my fists and stay for the allotted time, which requires a great effort of will. Every time that happens, someone arrives at the last minute. They’ve usually been many months or years away from the sacrament, and they receive great healing. But not without a battle first!


I think many of us have experienced something similar as penitents. The Holy Spirit moves us to contrition, and we resolve to go to confession, but then an obstacle emerges. Something prevents us from going, and unless we’re resolute, we postpone confession, and often we neglect to go.

All of these experiences, I think, are forms of spiritual attack. The enemy does not want us to receive the sacrament. More to the point, the enemy does not want Jesus to dwell in our hearts, much less have him reign in our mind, in our actions, and in our will.

Reconciliation is a great way to prepare our hearts, so that Jesus is pleased to dwell there. But of course, it’s not the only way.

The promise of Christ’s reign begins in our own lives. In the small acts of love and sacrifice we do each day. The unexpected favour we show our neighbour; the visit we make to the tabernacle; the time we invest in calling a distant friend or relative; our generosity towards the poor.

These small acts are an anticipation of the Kingdom, in all its power and majesty. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”