“To Seek God’s Face: Theological Approaches to Film”

Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is a sister of my community whose name you might recognize, either from the many times I have referred to her on this blog, or simply from  her wonderful and insightful film reviews. She just graduated from the Graduate Theological Foundation and received their 2018 Mother Teresa Prize in Spirituality and Community Service.

She is a pioneer in the area of Media Literacy Education, founding our Pauline Center for Media Studies, and also in her work of integrating media consumption with Catholic values—especially social justice in the teaching of the Catholic Church. Here is a short version of her acceptance of the award and her explanation of her doctoral project:

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In-Depth Look at Fake News and Journalism for Peace-Pope Francis’ World Communications Day Message

This year’s Message for World Communications Day is so timely that I wanted to highlight/summarize a couple important points from the Message—especially for people who haven’t read it. Three paragraphs impressed me so much that I made a line-by-line meditation on it—and I will share my notes from that with you below.

The theme for 2018 is “The truth will set you free”: Fake news and journalism for peace. In this powerful meditation for all of us living in the digital age (especially for all Christian communicators–which is all of us), Pope Francis highlights the importance of truth: in our lives, in our relationships, in our communication, in our service. The Message first gives a description of fake news, what makes fake news thrive, and how fake news exploits the human person, leading to:

  • the spread of disinformation
  • the spread of hate and arrogance,
  • demonizing others
  • fomenting conflict.

In describing how we can respond to fake news, Pope Francis approaches it from what we Pauline Sisters call a “Media Mindful” perspective:

“Preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place.”

Pope Francis goes on to recount how the “Father of Lies” perpetrated humanity’s first instance of fake news in Genesis 3:

  • pretense of friendship
  • speaking partial truths that distorts the truth and falsifies reality (incomplete, out of context)
  • speaking with the appearance of truth only

Pope Francis concludes, “Trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

How fake news so easily goes viral brings to my mind a story about St. Philip Neri, who is popularly remembered for his humor and humility, but who was renowned during his lifetime as a wise confessor. The story goes that to a woman who confessed the sin of gossip, St. Philip gave her the penance of walking through the town plucking the feathers of a chicken, and then to return to him. When she returned, the saint told her to now go back and gather up all the feathers. Dismayed, she protested that it was impossible. St. Philip pointed out that it is impossible to take back the harm that our gossip does.

Fake news can take lying and gossiping to a global level. Fake news may be driven by greed and a thirst for power, simple negligence, but it ultimately victimizes individuals by robbing us of our interior freedom. One solution is for everyone to practice a deeper awareness when it comes to our communication and especially our media usage. This is what we try to encourage in schools, parishes, and families, by sharing the practice of Media Mindfulness, which Pope Francis refers to (without using the label):

“Education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”

My favorite two paragraphs of the message I will quote in full, with a few of my personal reflections.

(You can download the four-page line by line reflection here.) 

Pope Francis wraps up with an invitation:

– to all people to listen and engage in sincere dialogue

– to journalists to take up the weighty responsibility of a commitment to truth: to be protectors of the news.

“Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

Pope Francis concludes with a powerful prayer to Christ, our Truth, that I will be praying daily through this year dedicated to Truth:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
Amen.

Make this Holy Week one-of-a-kind with Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

A “COOL PRAYER” FOR HOLY WEEK: A CINEMA NOVENA!

Join us in praying this nine-day Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

Let St. Paul lead you closer to Christ through nine days of prayer,
 using

  • a film clip from the new movie,PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST
  • a reading from the Letters of Saint Paul
  • a reflection
  • old and new prayers to Saint Paul
  • listen to James Faulkner, the actor who portrays St. Paul, reading from the Letters of St. Paul

This cinema novena will make this year’s Holy Week unlike any other!

Sign up for the novena here. (The Novena is available for free, beginning on March 23.)

Then, check here to find the showing of Paul, Apostle of Christ nearest you.

 

 

MORE ABOUT THE CINEMA NOVENA:

Paul, Apostle of Christ is nine unique days of prayer, supported by powerful, living depictions from the life of Paul, the great evangelizer and lover of Christ. This online novena will help you live in communion with Christ, for whom Paul preached, prayed, suffered, and ultimately gave his life. No other apostle preached, taught, and suffered as much as Paul, who did all for the sake of love. It is a way of drawing closer to Christ in your daily life.

You can begin the Novena any day you’d like, but you can join with the sisters praying it starting March 23 or March 24, 2018.

Sign Up for the Novena Today!

Upcoming Events for Lent (Online and in MA)

Our new online Catholic community, My Sisters, continues to grow and develop! It is a small, gradually-growing, but vital spiritual community. I have found it a wonderful community to engage with some amazing people of faith, sharing their struggles, joys, and insights. And I’m also preparing a substantial amount of content for the site. I am most excited about our very first online Lenten retreat, which will become available on Saturday, March 3, 2018:

Daughters of Saint Paul Sr. Mary Lea Hill (author of Prayer and You, Blessed Are the Stressed, and numerous other titles–she is belovedly known as the Crabby Mystic), Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis (national vocation director for the Daughters of St. Paul and engaging popular presenter with a fascinating New York/Staten Island-version accent) and I are co-hosting our first online Lenten retreat on the theme: Seeking God’s Will: How To Listen to God in Daily Life. Here is more information below:

 

Following the retreat, on the evening of Monday, March 5th, I’ll be offering live spiritual accompaniment on this theme of learning to seek, love, and live God’s will in the My Sisters private Facebook Group.

If you are interested in growing spiritually, nurturing your faith in everyday life, or simply want to make a retreat at your own schedule/pace, I invite you to think about joining My Sisters.

 

And on March 10, 2018, I will be speaking at the 2018 Women and Men’s Conference for the Fall River Diocese with the theme, Be on Fire, Set the World on Fire! I’ve posted the flyer below. Registration ends on March 1, so if you live nearby, you’ll definitely want to register as soon as possible.

Personally, I’m excited to visit Fall River–it’s been a long time since I’ve been there–and I’m really looking forward to meeting Father Dave Dwyer, who does such amazing Catholic media evangelization!

 

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, SDV, invites you to come to be set on fire with love so that you can set the world on fire with love!

Invitation: Walk in Christ with the Daughters of Saint Paul!

For the past couple of years, I have been assigned to Pauline Digital (our digital publishing apostolate). My assignment arrived as our approach to the possibilities of a digital presence started to radically shift. Up to this point, I have been doing a bit of everything: creating digital magazines and newsletters, helping out with our online Pauline store, putting up websites, and helping with various technical challenges. In the midst of all of this, I have tried to fit in some deeper writing, too–both for our digital media, and new books. It has been a challenging time, as well as a time of growth for me. And now, we sisters have chosen a particular direction that takes advantage of the wonderful possibilities of the internet so that we can really respond to some of the many needs expressed to us. This month, just in time for the beginning of Lent, we have launched a new digital “initiative.”

What if you could have all the things that you long for—readings, retreats, Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, videos, special prayers and meditations, even spiritual accompaniment, and more—all delivered to your computer, tablet, or smartphone every day? The opportunity to have all the resources you want ready for you to watch, read, pray, and absorb, whenever it’s convenient for you.

My Sisters gives you the opportunity to access exactly the spiritual content that you need anytime that you need it.

You can try it out for only one dollar, less than the cost of a cup of coffee. We’re giving you this special trial run because we’re so confident that once you’re part of My Sisters, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

If you are anxious, stressed, or overstretched, and you wonder what holiness can look like in your daily life, visit this online faith community that leads you to more clarity, joy and peace in your daily life. Find spiritual companionship for your journey.

This is a great opportunity to join, not only because you can start a trial month for only $1, but because the spiritual companionship of the sisters and online community–including the mini-conferences, weekly guides, live spiritual accompaniment groups, twice-a-week evening prayer, the live online lectio divina and Rosary, and DIY retreats–can inspire, motivate, guide, and challenge each of us on our walk in Christ.

Up to this point, I have been working in the background, on conferences and retreats. I’m delighted that we’ll be able to offer the first retreat as a Lenten retreat on the theme of living God’s will, offered in early March. While I plan to continue blogging here and at CoAuthorYourLifewithGod.comyou will definitely find me often online here at My Sisters.

Check out these features that My Sisters offers:

Do You Have a “Word” for 2018?

2018 has been filled with the unexpected so far—from new projects to my catching the flu. Because of this, I took a couple hours to brainstorm for a way to re-balance my writing life (and a couple other aspects of my life that I have ignored or not given enough time to). I was delighted to figure out a way to slow down and get back to a regular writing schedule.

One creative way of starting off a new year is to pick a word as a theme for the year. Every new year, I see more people picking their “word” for the year–have you? It’s better yet to notice a word that has “picked you,” especially when the word is from the Scriptures. I have never done this for a whole year, but during every monthly retreat, I try to pick a verse or phrase from the Bible that will inspire me for the whole month.

This year, however, a word “picked me,” as I was praying with the Gospel of John and I thought that I would share it with you. The word is: “Behold.”

According to an online site hosting the RSV translation, “behold” is used in the Bible over 1000 times (1134), and in the NABRE, “behold” is in that translation 104 times. Behold is a wonderful word for the spiritual life and for art, because it encourages us to really look, to see below the surface, to notice those telling details that allow us to appreciate more fully the sacred in our life. (And isn’t that what art is all about—helping us to see?)

The Gospel of John takes its use of the word a step further, encouraging us to go even deeper. The author of John uses “Behold” specifically to invite us to perceive the upside-down-ness of God at work in the world: this Gospel uses “behold” only when speaking of something that upsets human expectations.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1) is the context in which the word first “picked” me. And what is more of a paradox than this image of the Lamb of God? The Son of God who is perfect, pure, sinless, innocent, almighty, infinitely good and beautiful, being called a lamb in reference to being offered in sacrifice? We know that many of the Israelites assumed that the Messiah would be a powerful earthly leader but the calls him “the Lamb of God.”

In John 17, Jesus uses this term to speak about his glory, which will be his offering of himself on Calvary in order to save humanity.

In John 19, Pilate tells the crowd to behold their “King,” as a way to mock Jesus—but unknowingly he speaks the truth about the King of all humanity, the King of love who will give his life for us. Also in John 19, Jesus gives Mary and John new identities: Mary becomes the mother of John, and John becomes Mary’s son. We know that here, too, we need to look deeper. Jesus is doing more than entrusting his widowed mother to the care of a young man. He is asking Mary to become the Mother of the Church, and he sees in John the beginning of the Church.

In giving me this word, I feel Jesus inviting me to be more attentive to him in my daily life, to let go of my own agenda and assumptions that are blocking my vision or preventing me from hearing his gentle invitations to do his will.

Long walks has always been a cherished form of exercise for me. At one point, I decided to take up jogging: I could fit more exercise into less time; it was even better for my health than walking, etc. I never became very good at it, but stuck with it for a couple of years. Then one day I went for a long walk. And I realized how much I missed walking. When I jogged, I went too fast to notice everything around me—the flowers, the birds, the color of the sky, etc.—all those things that I enjoyed so much when I walked.

This year, I plan to walk—not jog—through each day. I want to pay attention to the things both great and small in my life that I often ignore or forget about. For me, first of all this means that I need to pay attention to what is going on inside of me—my thoughts and feelings—and then, the people and circumstances around me. For some insight, I am reading a lovely small new book by Frederich Buechner entitled, The Remarkable Ordinary.

My desire to live more contemplatively has been unexpectedly reinforced by  one of our sisters—who is also a dear friend—who spent these first days of 2018 in the hospital and is now in hospice. The smallest details become so significant in these precious days with her—making sure she is comfortable, offering her both the closeness of accompaniment but also the spiritual “space” to prepare herself for heaven. This sister is teaching me how to “behold” God’s presence and blessing in a deeper way, both throughout her life and the years that I have known her, and in these cherished days of her journey to her heavenly homeland.

If you’d like, please share your “word for 2018” in the comments below, or on Facebook!

5 (or 6) Reasons To Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Your Family This Christmas!

5 (or 6) Reasons To Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Your Family This Christmas!

On most “favorite Christmas movie” lists, It’s a Wonderful Life takes grand prize. Did you know that It’s a Wonderful Life even made it onto the Vatican’s list of 45 outstanding films during cinema’s first 100 years?

 

 

I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV, as so many people have. Having seen it once or twice a long time ago, I thought it would be worth re-watching and perhaps mentioning during the Christmas Special on the Salt + Light Radio Hour. If you have listened to previous Christmas episodes of the Salt + Light Radio Hour, you might know that for the show’s host, Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a great Christmas movie. For him, it’s the greatest movie of all time. So I sat down to watch it one more time.

Need I admit it? I was wrong. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just an “okay Christmas movie.” After really watching it, my appreciation for this movie was transformed! It moved up from being somewhere on my “pretty good movie” list to on my top 20 list. And it’s worth way more than a mention; I ended up spending our entire segment discussing it with Deacon Pedro.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film for family viewing, for spiritual renewal, and for cinema divina.

You can listen to the Five Spiritual Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life on the Salt + Light Radio Christmas Hour here, or browse below for a rambling version. And, if you are going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas, go ahead and download the free movie guide here on our Pauline website, www.BeMediaMindful.org ! Even just browsing the list of themes or questions might enrich the appreciation you or someone in your family might have for this wonderful film.

It’s a Wonderful Life  available on DVD, streaming.

1946, 2 hrs 10 min

Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.

In a nutshell: A great film in every way: artistically, dramatically, and narratively. It’s ironic (but in some ways appropriate to the message of the film) that the lack of appreciation for this movie partially destroyed director Frank Capra’s reputation as a filmmaker.

George Bailey is a good man who becomes desperate and thinks his life is worthless when he thinks he’s lost everything—through no fault of his own. In a miraculous answer to prayer, God sends an angel from heaven to show George how he wrong he is: that his life is indeed wonderful. The film is based on a solid short story (The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern—which you can find online), which is well-written but also gives the film scope to develop. The script itself is well-written, with the themes developing through the events, rather than the dialogue. (In other words, this is not a preachy movie. It is, like all great movies, a story.)

The characters are well-drawn—both as written and as acted. Jimmy Stewart’s George immediately draws us in—in part because of his goodness, but also because of his ordinariness and how he figures things out and then comes to making the right decision for that moment. George is also real in how he struggles when he is faced with sacrificing one of his dreams. (His habit of kicking whatever is nearby is a sure sign he is upset.) If you haven’t seen the film, stop here and continue reading after you’ve watched it. (Spoilers ahead!)

 

Windows to the Soul

So, why does It’s a Wonderful Life make such a great Christmas movie, in that it is entertaining, touching, and reminds us what Christmas is all about?

This is the thematic “lens” I chose for the movie guide: In self-sacrificial love, the Son of God comes to earth to save us, coming as an Infant born to a poor couple in a stable. George Bailey also has a mission to help others, but in the challenges and self-sacrifices he faces, he begins to doubt his personal vocation, his worth, and the meaning of his life. 

Here are a few of my thoughts on the spiritual reminders or spiritual “windows” that It’s a Wonderful Life can help us to see more clearly. I hope that you add more of your favorite reasons for watching this amazing Christmas classic!

1. Image of manliness.

George Bailey offers us a noble image of manliness lived out in the vocation of husband and father—both physical and spiritual fatherhood. Interestingly enough, one of the meanings of the name “Bailey” is “protector” or “guardian.” Following in the footsteps of his father, George makes choices for his family but also for the well-being of the people of the entire community. He doesn’t just protect from evil but also provides for others through his self-sacrificing, kindness and generosity. For me, George’s portrayal of manhood as father and protector is noble—even Saint Joseph-like!

In his Theology of the Body, Pope Saint John Paul II presents us with an understanding of masculinity and femininity that is life-giving. In many ways, George and Mary are examples that powerfully resonate with what St. John Paul has to say.

 

A brief favorite scene: even as George’s life falls apart, he reveals just how tenderly he loves his daughter.

 

2. Power of temptation.

It’s easy to take good people for granted, or to put people on a pedestal. And when things are going well for us, we can take that for granted, too. The best people, even the most generous people, get tempted. George is heroically virtuous throughout most of his life, and yet, every time George chooses for his family instead of himself, or to provide for others over his dreams of travel and education, he really struggles with it. He honestly expresses his anger and resentment, even though he makes the unselfish choice. In the end, these good choices become a source for his temptation to discouragement—and he almost gives over to it.

Today, our culture values individualism and “following your dream” to the point where we do not always consider the needs of others. We don’t talk much about the common good, or the responsibility of the strong to pay attention to those who aren’t as strong.(Who of us would change our career so that the financial well-being of our community would be assured?) It’s so easy to take on an attitude of greed or acquisition. If we aren’t interested in material goods, we seek to acquire other things: experiences, reputation, number of “likes,” etc. It’s a Wonderful Life is a timely reminder of the virtue of unselfish love, and also of the importance of cultivating prayer and the values we cherish most, so that a moment of strong temptation won’t overpower us.

 

3. Spirit of Poverty

In his films, director Frank Capra often treats issues of social justice with a Catholic sensibility. (You can read more about Capra’s Catholic vision in his films in this well-researched article.) George Bailey repeatedly gives up his own dreams for his family and to manage the town’s Building and Loan Company founded by his father, to prevent the wealthy and greedy Mr. Potts taking over the town. With his talents, George makes much of the little resources he has, sometimes inspiring others, too, to help save the town and create simple but homey neighborhoods for immigrants struggling to establish themselves. 

George doesn’t just give up a successful career or making money. He also gives up his dreams of education, travel, his shared dream of a honeymoon with his bride, his life-dream of fulfilling his potential in the way that he envisions. George’s sacrifice of these dreams is his greatest struggle, suffering, and, in the end, becomes his greatest temptation. Focused on what he doesn’t have and what he missed out on, he is no longer able to truly see or appreciate the best part of his life.

And yet, it is poverty of spirit that helps him discover the true treasures in his life. The spirit of poverty is emphasized with the quote under the photo of George’s father in the bank: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” And Harry, George’s brother for whom George has sacrificed so much, sums up at the end of the film, “A toast…to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!”

George doesn’t just give away money; he shares in the fate of others who are struggling financially; he allows their plight to affect his decisions of how he is going to live his life. He lives the spirit of poverty: a way that helps others and responds creatively to injustice.

 

4. Discouragement and 5. The power of prayer.

(I’m combining lesson 4 & 5 here, so that I can add one more at the end.)

In the “heavenly discussion” early in the film, the angels comment that discouragement is worse than illness. George’s extreme discouragement—it’s not too much to call it despair—is a “spiritual illness” that influences how he sees everything. Doing the right thing becomes “too hard;” a life that holds many sacrifices starts to seem meaningless. As the audience who have witnessed George’s life, we clearly see that these thoughts are temptations. One of the startling moments in the film for me was one I’d forgotten: when George thinks that God’s answer to his prayer is a punch! I was startled by it because I have often felt the same way. Out of fear and weariness, I give in to discouragement and can no longer see the good in my own life.

Desperate as he is, George prays for help. As a vibrant, essential part of his community, George’s crisis is recognized by others and they pray for him, too. The angel Clarence uses some Dickens-like creativity to help George overcome the power of this seductive temptation.

When Clarence claims to be the answer to George’s prayer, it came to me to wonder how often others are answers to my prayers. When we are truly open to doing God’s will, when we sincerely pray “Thy will be done” in the Our Father, then we too, can be God’s answer to a prayer. This movie is very Christian in how it likes to turn things “upside down”: God does answer prayers, but in his own time, in his own way. God sees differently than we do. The little, ordinary person—the little ones of the Gospel—the ones for whom, like Mary, their weakness is God’s strength—are not necessarily so little in God’s eyes. How can we be the answer to someone’s prayer today?

 

6. Meaning and Giftedness of Life

The meaning of life—that every life has meaning, and that every life is wonderful—is the theme of film. Clarence’s line sums it up well: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (Or, as Galadriel says in Lord of the Rings: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”)

What is impressive to me is that, despite his goodness, on some level George hasn’t understood this. Despite his kind generosity, his family, his achievements, and his great sacrifices for others, when George gradually starts to lose his faith, he discounts them all. It seems that he has been blind to the gift of his personal vocation and the true meaning of his life. Perhaps George never truly grasped the meaning of his life; perhaps he has always clung in some way to the dreams he thought he renounced. He simply dismisses or forgets the many lives he has saved or transformed, even discounting the friendships that mean the most to him.

Each of us carries a mental image of what success means, and we might, like George, feel like a failure if we don’t achieve that image. But is that “success” our vocation? Is it “success” that makes us truly happy? 

For me, the question to ask myself at the end of this movie is, “What makes my life wonderful, here and now?” This is a great question to share on as a family after watching this film. 

Recognizing the giftedness of our own lives doesn’t just make us grateful to be alive; it gifts us with joy and happiness, because we recognize how God is at work in our lives, how God continues to save us and love us, blessing us and gracing us.

You can download the free movie guide here, courtesy of the Pauline Center for Media Studies.

Themes found in It’s a Wonderful Life: Sacrificial love, life-giving love, meaning in life, personal vocation, manliness, spirit of poverty, Christmas, giftedness of life, family, salvation, gratitude, power of prayer, discouragement, perseverance, social justice.