Monday, February 27, 2012

Catholics, episode one, BBC Four, review

It was brave of Richard Alwyn to begin Catholics (BBC Four) with an hour focused entirely on young men training for the priesthood. 

The other two films in his series look at the place of children and women in the Roman Catholic church, and as such are more outward looking, more accessible to the casual viewer than this deep-delving piece on the rarefied, largely enclosed world of Allen Hall, one of just three remaining Catholic seminaries in England.

But Alwyn’s focus on the seminary allowed him to get straight to heart of Catholicism in Britain today, and one of its biggest current crises – the shortage of young men entering the priesthood.

In 2010, from among a community of around five million believers, just 19 men were ordained as priests in England and Wales.

During the six months or so of filming last year, only 45 men were undertaking the six-year “formation” course at Allen Hall.

“The first question you’ve got to ask is why would anyone want to become a priest in today’s world? You’ve got to be nuts,” said Robert Hunt, a first year seminarian who, as a former rock band roadie, seemed rather more worldly than the norm.

For him, the call to priesthood had been a gradual one, a realisation that the others paths he’s gone down in life were not right for him. To the point where he could no longer ignore the call of his vocation.

So it was with final year “candidate” Andrew Gallagher, whose time working in the “ruthless environment” of a City law firm had convinced him to take a more spiritual path in life.

Despite protestations that he hadn’t had an especially “holy” upbringing, the fact that he’d been nicknamed “the priest” at school did add a certain sense of predestination to his decision.

Most of the other trainee priests we met were much as you might expect: studious, slightly awkward and reflective men who believed they’d been called by God to devote themselves to the Church.

Alwyn’s camera followed them down echoing dark corridors into half-empty lecture rooms where they studied everything from Biblical Greek to feminist ethics, practiced giving homilies, and took part in seminars on practical matters like administering the last rights to the dying.
To the camera these young men spoke openly about the central place of faith in their lives, of giving their future to Christ, of the challenge of celibacy and of “the long shadow of abuse scandals that hangs over the priesthood” as Alwyn put it.

Other difficult questions surrounding contemporary Catholicism – the Church’s stance on contraception, abortion, women priests – were never addressed directly.

Which is not to say there wasn’t plenty of material from which to draw one’s own conclusions.

Alwyn’s technique is observational, unobtrusive and non-judgemental – but he also has a talent for getting people to open up.

This, combined with a clear respect for his subject, and a keen eye for filmic irony (a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus standing in front of an old sign for Guinness; a jumble of discarded crucifixes in a cardboard box in a sacristy) resulted in a gorgeously shot, beautifully judged film that gave a strong and honest sense of the emotional and intellectual challenges of devoting one’s life to the Roman Catholic church today.