starring Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Charles Haid, Michael Rispoli, Jams Gallanders, Jean-Louis Roux, Ken James and Barbara Sukowa
written by John Romno and Richard Vetere
directed by Agnieszka Holland
Based on the novel of the same title by Richard Vetere (who co-wrote the screenplay), this is the story of Roman Catholic priest Father Frank Shore, who is suffering a mid-life crisis of faith. Fr. Shore’s job is working as a “Postulator Advocate” for the Archbishop of Chicago. That is the Church functionary whose job it is to investigate reputed miracles - the kinds of religious events that we periodically read about in the media: unexplained events like bleeding attributed to statues, healings attributed to prayer directed to the soul of a deceased pious person, etc. – and either recommend their cause to the Congregation of the Saints in Rome, or else to put the kybosh on it. Frank’s job requires him to exercise the toughest evidentiary criteria, the profoundest intellectual investigation, and the latest scientific methodology to rule out any possibility of events occurring by anything other than divine intervention. Naturally, most unexplained phenomenon can eventually be explained when investigated like this, and Postulator Advocates can reputations for themselves as “saint killers” more than saint makers. This is Fr. Shore’s reputation. He reminds me a little bit of the priest in The Exorcist, Father Kelly, utilizing every effort of his psychiatric training to rationally explain the afflictions of Linda Blair in that movie, and also of Antonio Banderas as the priest in last year’s movie The Body.
Set in 1979, after the ascension of the current Pope John Paul II, Fr. Shore is faced with the case of Helen, a deceased local housewife (a European immigrant), who is credited by local parishioners of the miraculous cure of a local girl of terminal lupus. Helen’s favorite statue in the church school’s playground is said to cry tears of her own blood - but only during the month of November, and only when it rains. Predictably, this attracts crowds of the simple faithful, people who don’t care about the rationality of it all, or the doctrines of the Church, but are imbued with simple faith and hope.
There are three stages in the process of recognizing a Saint. (I cannot say “making a saint,”because, as the movie points out, the Church does not “make” saints. God makes them.) The first stage is called Veneration. Next is Beatification. And, finally, Canonization is the official declaration of sainthood. The process takes years and years, and the final step cannot be taken until at least three miracles can be suitably demonstrated and attributable to the person one is praying to. That is no easy task, since the Church is very rigorous in its requirements and evidence. Who, or what is a saint? A saint is a person who was filled with a love beyond what people are thought capable of such that, when they die, they are considered to be “friends of God,” immanent with God in heaven. They are love incarnate. And so, prayers directed to that person are thought to be granted because of the saint’s ‘special’ relationship with God. That’s the idea, anyway. Most people probably are not interested in these things, but I really dig them. I studied theology, after all.
During his long reign over the Holy See Pope John Paul II is responsible for elevating a large number of people to sainthood - a surprising number, actually, when set against the context of the idespread cynical doubt of our secular age. John Paul’s canonization program probably is best viewed against his conservative agenda for the Church and his desire to bolster Catholic traditions in these secular times when disbelief is common, and religious belief is considered an eccentricity. He wants to keep the message of the Church current, by canonizing greater numbers of modern people and provide role models for the times. Plus, he selects a great many candidates from the developing world where most of our population growth occurs.
There have only been a handful - less than five - American saints. That, and the fact that the woman, Helen, was a layperson of no particularly pious reputation during her lifetime, weakens her case. But Frank, who enters the story as a skeptic after previous investigations of reputed miraculous events, is swayed to the veracity of her case. Two miracles can successfully be attributed to her intervention (with God). By the end of the film the process of canonization is in stasis as a third miracle is awaited. Figuratively speaking, maybe we can say that the restoration of Fr. Shore’s faith and vocation is the third miracle. Where once he complained to a friend, “How does faith get away from us?” by movie’s end he is happily ensconced as a parish priest with a revived sense of vocation and faith. Halleluiah!