How do we deal with changes in our lives? Do we welcome new ideas and new ways of doing things or do we sit entrenched in our own certainty and fight against change, no matter the cost?
In the film Doubt, friendly Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to build a new spirit at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. Taking over as pastor a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy, Father Flynn realizes that the world is changing.
There are many examples of change in their own school: Donald Miller is accepted as the school’s first black student; new technology (ball point pens, transistor radios with ear plugs) captures the students’ attention and disrupts the classroom; and even though Father Flynn still celebrates Mass with his back to the congregation, we know that liturgical reforms will soon filter down to the neighborhood parishes.
To help his congregation adjust, he first tells them that he understands. “Any one of you in these pews may have doubts…about what you’ve done, what you desire, even faith itself. Doubt can be a bond as powerful and unifying as certainty. Even when you are lost, you are not alone.” He then sets out to become involved and pay attention to his parish, especially the students. He gives extra attention to Donald, who has family issues and is teased by some of the students.
Father Flynn’s approach of meeting uncertainty with understanding and kindness is completely foreign to Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of St. Nicholas School. She is proud that the students are uniformly terrified of her. “That’s how it works,” she tells novice teacher Sister James (Amy Adams).
When Sister Aloysius hears Father Flynn preach about doubt, she perceives this as a character flaw in him and advises the other nuns to be alert, as she is concerned about matters in the school.
When Sister James comes to her with suspicions about Father Flynn and Donald Miller, Sister Aloysius is immediately certain of wrongdoing and sets forth on a campaign to prove her beliefs.
Her certainty of Father Flynn’s wrongdoing starts a harmful gossip slowly erodes the power and respect that both have within the parish.
“It’s up to the audience to decide whether Sister Aloysius is a tremendous force of protection for children or if she’s simply a person who is using a fiery agenda to hide her real agenda, which is that she doesn’t like this guy and doesn’t like what he represents,” said John Patrick Shanley, the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning play and director of the film, in a recent interview with National Public Radio.
In another Sunday sermon, Father Flynn preaches about the cancerous effects of gossip in a community. He tells the story of a young lady who spreads gossip about someone she barely knows. That night, she dreams that the hand of God descends from heaven and points at her, pointing at the sin she committed.
Feeling remorse, she goes to confession and tells her priest that she is sorry for her sins. “Say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys,” the priest tells her, “but I’m not letting you off the hook so easily. Go home and get up on the roof with a pillow and a knife. Slice open the pillow so all the contents fall out. Then come back and tell me when you have done this.”
The young lady goes home, climbs the stairs to the roof, slices open a pillow and watches as the down and feathers fly up into the air and float throughout the neighborhood.
The next day she visits the priest again and tells him she did everything he asked. “Now,” the priest says, “go home and gather up each and every feather.” “I’m sorry Father,” the young lady apologizes, “I can’t do that because the wind has spread the feathers all over the neighborhood. Some have even floated farther away.”
The wise priest replied “Gossip is just like the feathers. Once you let it out, the wind will blow it everywhere.”
I’m reminded of the e-mails that circulated the Web, erroneously proclaiming that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and that he and his staff have taken great steps to hide this truth. And yet there is no proof whatsoever to confirm the e-mails’ contents or justify the spreading of this cancerous lie.
In this New Year, let us gather as one community, one country to express kindness and respect to all men and women, sanctify all life and work together to create good changes for all of mankind.
First published in the January 23, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.