[:: note :: review of the finale at the top of the blog]
I must admit, I approached this A&E series with a lot of apprehension. A&E, a major cable network, dabbling in a reality show that tries to document guys as they discern the priesthood? And the hoaky title? Anyway, CNS had a good report on it, as did Amy. I missed it on Easter night (too busy recovering from Holy Week :-)), but saw that there was a rerun Monday evening. So, I ended up watching it with two students (one at least, who's pretty serious about the priesthood himself).
And we were hooked. We ended up watching the 4 episodes that aired today (5-8 pm and 9-11 pm), catching pizza in between at the Idiot, leaving the finale for Sunday night.
First the hoaky stuff: the title. Choosing a girl (i.e. marriage) is choosing against God? Puh-lease! [We kept saying that as we watched!] And yes, the reality-TV style "interviews" were mildly annoying (however, didn't seem to distract too much ... maybe one just got used to them! Which is scary in of itself.). Yes, there's the whole over-dramatization of "the decision of a lifetime?" (As one of the critics reminded us: the decision to choose the priesthood is hardly a final one. The discernment is ultimately the Church's -- through the formation team, seminary, and ultimately the ordaining Bishop's. Seminary is the next step in discernment, and can be, from what I hear, pretty intense ... there's not any guarantee that anyone going in will come out with chrism on their hands! I think at one point one priest says, very simply and clearly --- "well, you don't ever know 100%! Take it one day at a time! "). And several times --- "well, they have TV cameras there. How weird must that be!" (such as when asking for the help of strangers for an act of mercy, or riding a bus in Guatemala)
All that said, I must really commend A&E for doing a superlative job. For one, the Catholic faith is taken seriously, as the lived reality at the center of these four guys' lives. There's no attempt to try and explain anything away, no cynical skepticism, no patronizing. The heart of the faith -- the struggle for holiness, to conquer sin, to listen to God's voice in a world that screams of everything but God, is presented in a very straightforward, almost matter-of-fact manner that doesn't seem at all freakish.
That's probably what I liked best -- the guys all come across as, well, normal. Yes, they're religious, deeply religious. But that's hardly that unusual at a college campus in the United States. Even though what they're doing is, from one perspective, quite radical. And they do stuff that would freak the more secular outt -- pray at abortion clinics and strip clubs, carry an 80lb cross twenty two miles over three days, and what not. Hardly normal stuff. But it doesn't seem unreasonable, or freakish.
And the series seems to take the whole process of discernment, of prayer, of listening, of the confusion, of the conflict, seriously, without getting bogged down in it.
I wasn't too impressed by two of the three priests on the show so far (more on the third below). One is so manipulative that all of us were going, "what? Did he say that?" and "no friggin' way!" Quite aghast. The other says something so weird that I thought I hadn't heard correctly. "I ask you in obedience to let us help you carry that cross." In obedience? The guys are lay Catholics -- not in a religious order!
I wonder if A&E asked each of them to do something a bit radical. One carries the cross. Actually, while seeming a little weird at first, one buys it. Mortification of the flesh to hear clearly the voice of God. One goes on a pilgrimage of over 160 miles, with no money or credit cards, relying only on the kindness of strangers. One travels to do missionary work in Guatemala.
There's interesting and powerful evangelical encounters -- receiving help from strangers, conversations with evangelical Christians (one a former Catholic, one who very simply says that the guys are sincere but on the path of error since the Catholic Church teaches error).
One intensely powerful moment for me was when Steve, one of the guys (who'd given up an 80K corporate job to work as a college missionary), is in Guatemala, visiting a missionary priest who lives with the poor. The priest is simply amazing! Well, for one, he's from India. Speaks with a thick South Indian accent too. Left home and family to work with the people in Guatemala. He exudes calmness and compassion, faith and love. And Steve is so clearly touched by the Spirit. "If I am lucky, God will let me be a priest" he says, in tears, at the end of his visit.
Fr. Jorge also says this, "All I can give is my life." I got chills. That's really the only thing that we can give God. Not just priests. Each of us. And that's what He thirsts for so much!
Early on we were placing bets on the guys --- however, each of them quite clearly seems to go through a spiritual transformation, and deepens his relationship with God, right there on TV. That Hollywood could treat religion with such simple acceptance, with no strings attached, is in of itself a small miracle.
Finally, I am quite impressed by each of the guys -- that they would bare their souls on TV, in front of millions of people in a way that just doesn't come across as egocentric, takes tremendous courage. Their love for God and for His Church is quite palpable as well.
The guys I were seeing this with were quite psyched themselves. Already AIM has been buzzing about the show -- we'll get a group together to see the finale next Sunday evening. One wants to start a Catholic frat (like the one shown in the series -- Fort Zion at OSU) right here!
A couple of postscripts:
--- I do wish that A&E will do a follow up in a couple of years. How that would work at seminary if any of the guys do enter seminary, I'm not sure. It would be neat though.
--- Again, the agenda of an earlier generation -- matters of internal church reform (celibacy, sexuality, women priests) simply doesn't surface. At all. In fact, if it did, it would just seem rather out of place. Yes, all of these could be considered "conservative" Catholics. But, generally speaking, Catholics who live their faith in this way -- regular prayer, Scripture study, living with other guys who make a temporary commitment not to date, at college in an intentional community --- I would submit, would be considered "conservative" from some perspectives. But hardly caricatures. Yes, there is traditional piety (I was reminded of Matthew Likona and Colleen Carroll). But not what some expect and label "fundamentalism." Unless simply loving the Church is to be denigrated with that pejorative.
- A&E's website for the show.
- God or the Girl dot com (maintained by an organization called UDA. No idea who they are. Cool downloads, study guides and the like)
- Links at above site to articles and reviews
- The comboxes at Open Book. As always a mix of deeply insightful, funny and downright nutty and infuriating. :)
- Mark Mossa: "They don't get it!"