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The Black Robe
Motion picture, The Black Robe, tells the story of a young Jesuit priest, Fr. Laforgue

Teacher, Preacher, Witness, Friend (cf. 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 3)

Based on the best-selling novel by Brian Moore, the 1991 motion picture, The Black Robe, tells the story of a young Jesuit priest, Fr. Laforgue, who has forsaken home, wealth and marriage in order to bring the message of the Gospel to the Indians of the wide, desolate, snow plains of Canada. The movie opens with Laforgue deciding to take a companion with him on his journey, a Quebequoix, Daniel, the latter who speaking the language of the Huron, seeks to embark on the arduous journey as a way of preparing for a vocation as a Jesuit. Laforgue and Daniel are escorted by Chomina, an Indian chief, who has with him a small company of family and warriors. Graphic and violent, as a film, The Black Robe, offers no apology for the reality of the odyssey that the Director, Bruce Beresford seeks to depict. The viewer is confronted by frequent barbarity and sexual depravity. At the close of the film, Laforgue arrives at his destination – a small, and unsuccessful Jesuit mission, thousands of kilometres away from his point of departure – Quebec. As Laforgue opens the door to the Chapel he is confronted with the frozen and butchered corpse of a Jesuit priest – and then he notices, lying, dying in the sacristy another Jesuit, who lives only long enough to receive Extreme Unction. The next morning, Laforgue buries his two Jesuit brothers – cutting his way through the ice in the process. He then proceeds to ring the Church bell. From out of their huts come the Indians. They inform him that there is a plague that has ripped through the tribe, and that they have not been baptized – but will submit to baptism, if Laforgue can answer one question, a question that the previous priest was seemingly unable to answer: “Do you love us?” In the classic conclusion, Laforgue hesitates and the viewer is invited into his memory of the journey: we see Daniel succumbing to sexual pleasure with Chomina’s daughter, Annuka; Annuka being sexually assaulted by an enemy warrior, Chomina’s youngest daughter having her throat cut; the murder of Chomina’s wife, by a band of Indian raiders; Chomina dying in a snow field; and Laforgue himself, being tortured – and having his finger cut off. All these scenes flash across the screen – as tears begin to roll down Laforgue’s cheeks. Laforgue looks at the chief who has asked the question – and in a broken voice he says: “Yes, I love you”. The chief then replies: “Then Baptize us, Black Robe!”

For the Indians – the Truth of the Gospel is secondary to the reality of a living truth within the heart and mind of the shepherd who seeks to lead them. They see in Laforgue, courage, sensitivity, passion – and humanity; and only because of these elements, they will listen to what he has to say about: God, life, sin, suffering, joy and death.

But for the level of violence and sexual content contained in the film, The Black Robe, would be a wonderful tool for instruction into the role of the priest in the Church. Following in the footsteps of Christ, the priest must teach, preach, witness as well as be a friend to his flock. What is enormously poignant in this film is that the Indians would not submit to Baptism, if the baptist could not admit publicly that he loved those he wished to baptize. For the Indians – the Truth of the Gospel is secondary to the reality of a living truth within the heart and mind of the shepherd who seeks to lead them. They see in Laforgue, courage, sensitivity, passion – and humanity; and only because of these elements, they will listen to what he has to say about: God, life, sin, suffering, joy and death.

In the Gospels Christ calls his disciples not by performing miracles – but by the force of his character. He is assured; He is chaste; He has a purpose; He teaches with authority; He speaks in parables in order to convey the message simply; He has courage; He sacrifices for His friends; He is totally committed; and He loves – totally. These leadership qualities were also reflected in the great missionaries such as St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier.

I sometimes try to console myself by thinking that this kind of pastoral work is something that just did not exist in earlier times and is quite unchristian. But perhaps it is really the end of our Christianity that we fail here. We have learned to preach again, at any rate a little, but the care of souls?’

Eberhard Bethge in his biography of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes a part of Bonhoeffer’s early life as a pastor, when having prepared a group of teenagers for Confirmation, Bonhoeffer went out to visit their working-class parents in the back-streets of Berlin. Bethge writes: “the pleasure he [Bonhoeffer] took in teaching and gaining the confidence of difficult delinquent boys was contrasted by the difficulties he experienced in his pastoral visits to the parents. Bonhoeffer felt he was not up to the task and that his theological training had failed to equip him for it. It took a tremendous amount of effort to ring uninvited at a strange door, and make himself and his purpose known. True the son of the house gave himself something to talk about, but [in Bonhoeffer’s words]: ‘To think of those excruciating hours or minutes when I or the other person try to begin a pastoral conversation, and how haltingly and lamely it goes on … I sometimes try to console myself by thinking that this kind of pastoral work is something that just did not exist in earlier times and is quite unchristian. But perhaps it is really the end of our Christianity that we fail here. We have learned to preach again, at any rate a little, but the care of souls?’”. (Bethge, 2000, p. 227).

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Bonhoeffer is really addressing the crux of much of the problem that our Church faces today – the alienation of the clergy from the general populace. Our clergy deserves more than to be humoured, being treated with dignity only at the times when the laity seeks to call on them, for the Sacraments, or for personal references for school admission. The laity must begin to see the clergy as an important facet to their life and living – and this can only be done, if the laity and the general populace see that that the message that the clergy are preaching is one that is both immediate and relevant to their lives. The best manner by which to do this is for the clergy to both preach and live – the social Gospel; a Gospel in which justice is upheld and witnessed. Further to this laity and clergy must see themselves as two sides of the same coin – inseparable. Both the dignity of the laity and the priest should be respected for the vital role they play in the Sacramental life and the earthly existence of the Church.

There is a kind of pride in the pastor who shows great warmth and generosity to those in his charge, and yet is blind to the warmth and generosity which they show in return.

In The Year of The Priest, significant thought should be had in how to train candidates for the priesthood – to be not only authentic to their theology, and devoted to their Church – but authentic to their humanity and the part they play within the Catholic as well as in the broader community. If the candidate has chosen the celibate priesthood, then let him be faithful to this condition; if the priestly candidate is a married man, then let both he and his wife, and his family  provide and reveal an example to their community of a domestic church. Let ordination not be an excuse for a chasm to be created; wherein the ordained become too holy for any earthly purpose; making the priest, not only distinct, but alien. Our father among the Saints, St. John Chrysostom, teaches the following about priestly formation: “In the relationship of a pastor with his flock, it is not sufficient for the pastor to express his love for them; he must acknowledge their love for him. There is a kind of pride in the pastor who shows great warmth and generosity to those in his charge, and yet is blind to the warmth and generosity which they show in return. It is as if he is claiming a monopoly of love. But when a pastor expresses gratitude for the love which thy have showered upon him, he is affirming their virtue, and thus encouraging them in their Christian journey. The same is true in all personal relationships. The person who just expresses love for his friends but fails to acknowledge their love for him is not a true friend. Loving friendship requires both parties to love each other, and each party to affirm the other’s love. Jesus, as both a pastor and a friend, not only poured out love but also made himself dependent on others. He possessed nothing, so for his very survival he had to rely on the kindness of his friends and disciples. And in his gratitude for all he received, he affirmed them as true friends and true disciples”. (St. John Chrysostom, 1996, p. 47).

Only the giving to these people of love, by the minister, as well as his acknowledged receipt of their love, can place the prerequisite trust in the heart of those the minister seeks to call – in God’s name.

Both the Indian chief at the conclusion to The Black Robe as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer on his pastoral visits had the depth of perception to understand that any God who sends out ministers to serve, requires of these ministers far more than the arbitrary quoting of a Sacred Text or Scripture – but requires of these men the ability to walk with people – and by so doing lead them, every step that they journey to God. Only the giving to these people of love, by the minister, as well as his acknowledged receipt of their love, can place the prerequisite trust in the heart of those the minister seeks to call – in God’s name. First and foremost the priest should be a man of authentic love – be he celibate or married. If he cannot fulfill this criteria, it would be better for him to have chosen a vastly different vocation, than to wear a mask – cold, distant, inhumane, dead; and by wearing this mask spread by the contagion of his presence to his flock not a devotion to a living God, but a de-sensitization to the awareness in their lives, as well as the subsequent reception, of the Spirit of Truth.

No better example can we find in modern Catholic history of the critical role of the priest, than in the teaching, preaching, witnessing and friendship that Blessed Fr. Emilian Kowcz, a Ukrainian Catholic priest, offered to his fellow prisoners in the Nazi extermination camp of Majdanek. There among people condemned to horrible deaths, Fr. Kowcz wrote: “I thank God for His goodness to me. Apart from heaven, this is the one place where I wish to remain. Here we are all equal: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians and Estonians. Of all these here I am the only priest. I cannot even imagine how it would be here without me. Here I see God, who is the same for us all, regardless of our religious distinctions. Perhaps our churches are different, but the same great and Almighty God rules over us all. When I celebrate the Divine Liturgy, they all join in prayer. . . They die in different ways, and I help them to cross over this little bridge into eternity. Is this not a blessing? Isn’t this the greatest crown which God could have placed upon my head? It is indeed. I thank God a thousand times a day for sending me here. I do not ask him for anything else. Do not worry, and do not lose faith at what I share. Instead, rejoice with me … Pray for those who created this concentration camp and this system. They are the only ones who need prayers . . May God have mercy upon them.” On the very night before he was gassed, Fr. Emilian wrote to his wife and his children: “I understand that you are trying to get me released. But I beg you not to do this. Yesterday they killed fifty people. If I am not here, who will help them to get through these sufferings? They would go on their way to eternity with all their sins and in the depths of unbelief, which would take them to hell. But now they go to death with their heads held aloft, leaving all their sins behind them. And so they pass over to the eternal city.” Such be the final demand that is made to a priest – to love, even if in this love, one loses one’s body to rescue another’s soul.

written by: Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

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This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, January 2017.