“Philomena” Film Contains Lessons on Justice & Forgiveness for Catholics Hurt by Church

March 2, 2014

Pope Francis meeting Philomena Lee

“Philomena” is nominated for four Oscars at tonight’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and  has already been celebrated for its artistic accomplishments. The film, based upon a book published in 2009, details the true story of a young girl forced to give up her child to Irish nuns in the 1950s. Touching upon the abuse scandals of the Irish Church and the problems of mid-20th century Catholicism, the movie also comments on LGBT matters.

Jamie Manson wrote a review last fall for the National Catholic Reporter viewed from the lens of a progressive Catholic, and highlighted lessons the film might offer to the Church today. She writes:

“What appears from the ads as a middlebrow, sentimental comedy about a quirky Irish lady and a slightly exasperated English writer on a road trip is in fact a study in the gift of fortitude, an exploration of a dark chapter in the history of the Catholic church in Ireland and, in the end, a meditation on power of mercy in the face of an unconscionable abuse of power.”

Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) was sent to one of Ireland’s infamous ‘Magdalene Laundry’ establishments after becoming pregnant at 18. The Catholic nuns administering the laundry forced her to allow her son, Anthony, to be adopted by an American couple and it was not until 2004 that Philomena broke her silence about this child. The film details her search to find Anthony, aided by Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), her daughter, and, Martin (Steve Coogan), a journalist who have a far more critical view of the Church than Philomena. They learn that Anthony, who was gay, has died of AIDS before Philomena was able reconnect with him, but the story doesn’t end there.

The film’s producers had hoped Pope Francis would view it and offer a nuanced perspective against those who had deemed it as ‘anti-Catholic.’ Speaking to both the issues of corruption and abuse, as well as the LGBT component, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, and executive director, Francis DeBernardo, spoke to The Huffington Post:

” [Sr. Gramick:] ‘I think ‘Philomena’ is a sensitive portrayal of a woman whose deep love for her son impels her to search for him across the ocean to another continent…As a woman religious, I was ashamed of the behavior of the nuns in charge of the Catholic institution in which she was placed. Not only did they snatch her child and put him up for adoption, but they also refused to help her trace him years later. [Lee's] lack of bitterness and pardon toward those who wronged her is an example of the kind of forgiveness Jesus spoke of in the Gospel. I think Pope Francis would like this film because it shows how Christians should, and should not, act.’…

“[DeBernardo:] ‘I found the depiction of Philomena Lee’s Catholicism to be very accurate…Philomena reminded me of many of the Catholic parents of LGBT people I have met over the years who have both a deep love for their faith and for their children. And they find no contradiction in these two loves. Their strong faith even allows them to love the institutional church which has often been so negative and harmful towards them and their children.’ “

Lee, like many parents and Catholics, transformed her pain into constructive action and co-founded The Philomena Project, which attempts to make public information about the more 60,000 women separated from their children by the Church and the Irish government. And though he did not view the film, Pope Francis met Lee on February 5th during a private audience. Her wisdom reported by Religion News Service is relevant for all Catholics, especially those harmed by the Church, to pause and reflect upon:

“Asked if she felt resentment against the church, Lee said, ‘You can’t go through life being so unyielding; you’ve got to forgive.’…

” ‘I have always put great faith in the church and the goodwill to put the wrongs of the past right…I hope and believe that his Holiness Pope Francis joins me in the fight to help the thousands of mothers and children who need closure on their own stories.’ “

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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