I learned many years ago that it’s almost always a bad idea to begin a sentence in the following way: “Every priest should . . .” Others, however, have never managed to grasp this, so over the years I’ve heard people say that every priest should take vitamins, that every priest should read such and such a book, that every priest should shorten or lengthen his homilies, etc. I’ve no doubt that most of the clergy reading this article have heard their fair share of such statements. These suggestions are mildly annoying, but — let’s face it — they go with the territory.
Well, at the risk of seeming mildly annoying (I’ve been called far worse and survived), I’m going to break my little tradition of never using these forbidden words. Here goes: Every priest should see the film Of Gods and Men. There, I’ve said it, and I really mean it. This is a remarkable film, one of real depth and beauty that has much to say about how a faithful priest or religious should live his life. The movie is in French with English subtitles, but don’t let that dissuade you. It has a simple enough plot, but one that is powerful and gripping. It tells the true story of a group of nine French Trappists in a missionary abbey in Algeria.
The movie takes place in the mid 1990s. The monks have lived in peace and genuine harmony with the local population for some time, but things are heating up, and real danger has become possible — even probable. Some of the local people try to warn the monks of the increasing danger, to tell them that they may be attacked and even killed. This is the case despite the fact that the monks have been very helpful to the local people, including providing medical care for those who could not afford it in any other way. The monks also have been very low key, not engaging in any overt missionary activity among the Muslims but simply living Catholic lives in a very non-Christian part of the world. Even this is an affront to some, however, and the quiet but unconcealed Catholicism of the Trappists marks them for danger, tragedy and eventual martyrdom.
During the course of the film the tension grows ever higher, but the monks remain remarkably at peace. One can see that individually they struggle, as any normal person would, with fear and apprehension, but, led by their abbot and sustained by their faith and by their community, they go on. The possibility of leaving is always there; it can be grasped at any moment, but the monks stay. No one leaves, despite the fact that events occurring beyond the monastery walls become increasingly ominous.
There is something very powerful in the understated way the monks hold on to their religious vocations, their community life and their trust in God, even when all around them is spinning out of control. The film beautifully presents a very realistic picture of the religious life. There is, in fact, nothing pietistic about the film. The distortions, sentimentalisms, and anti-Catholicism that Hollywood is so prone to are also absent from Of Gods and Men. We see the monks as very serious Christians, but men just like the rest of us, struggling to follow the commandments and to lead the religious life.
The film builds to its inexorable conclusion. What we in the audience have known will happen almost from the beginning comes to pass, and the monks are murdered — murdered simply for their Christianity, for their unwillingness to be anything but what they have been called by God to be.
As we look around us, we see a world that becomes less and less Christian with every passing day. We see a world that dislikes or even despises the Church. We see a world that ridicules those who will not conceal their commitment to Christ. We will never be called to make the great sacrifice that these nine very ordinary religious men made in Algeria, but we are called to sacrifice in a way we might not have expected years ago. We are also called to stay, as the monks of this film stayed, being visible and steadfast in our faithfulness to Christ in a world that seems to spin out of control. Like those monks, we can find the peace of Christ even within a tumultuous world.
I almost never go to movies, but I am very glad I went to this one, and despite my longstanding rule, I cannot keep myself from saying: “Every priest should see it.”