Hollywood Catholicism Leaves an Impression

Going My Way

Sister Act not withstanding, Hollywood’s earlier Golden Age of film making left an indelible impression on me and many other other young Catholics in mid-20th-century America. One Sunday, my priest at St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in Chicago, who is also of Polish ancestry, mentioned during a homily that the classic film Going My Way had influenced him immensely as a young man. Even though he is nearly a decade younger than I am, and even though the film was made before either of us was born, it had a lasting impact on our world views, which are quite different in detail but, I’m convinced, quite similar in essence. Here is a list of a dozen Hollywood takes on the Catholic religion. Each expresses something at the same time sentimental and magical about faith without the mockery and cynicism of later films that depict nuns and priests as the butt of jokes or, worse yet, as perverts.

1. The Song of Bernadette (1943)
The film is very clever in the way it portrays St. Bernadette as a slow and simple country girl who never really claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary.
2. Going My Way (1944)
Bing Crosby demonstrated his acting skills as a youthful Father O’Malley, who wins over his conventional superior with his sincerity and street smarts.
3. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Bing Crosby brings Father O’Malley back to the screen; this time he is sent to a run-down parochial school on the verge of condemnation, where he and Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict work together in an attempt to save the school.
4. Joan of Arc (1948)
Ingrid Bergman is again dazzling as she brings the life of Joan of Arc to the screen, leaving us to wonder forever how a French girl of 19 could become a military leader and then a saint, after she is burned at the stake by her English foes.
5. The Miracle of the Bells (1948)
It’s premise may be hokey (the need to generate publicity for a dead actress), but Frank Sinatra’s performance as a priest will tug at your heart strings.
6. Come to the Stable (1949)
In this touching and respectful melodrama, Loretta Young and Celeste Holm play nuns who want to establish a children’s hospital.
7. The Nun’s Story (1959)
Once you’ve seen the legendary Audrey Hepburn convincingly portray a young novice devoted to service in the Congo after World War II, you will understand how a crisis of faith feels and empathize with the descipline and humility once expected of nuns.
8. Lilies of the Field (1963)
Sydney Poitier shines as a drifter who is cajoled into building a chapel in the desert by a group of faithful nuns.
9. The Sound of Music (1965)
Julie Andrews’ charm and magical voice made girls of every religion want to be a Catholic nun, if only long enough to sing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.”
10. Romero (1989)
Although it was made much later than the other films on my list, this film left a lasting impression by virtue of Raul Julia’s astonishing portrayal of real-life hero Archbishop Oscar Romero who opposed, at great personal risk, tyrannical repression in El Salvador.
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