By Lydia O’Kane
Down through the years, there have been numerous portrayals of priests on the big screen, whether it be two time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy in Boys Town or a young Gregory Peck in Keys to the Kingdom.
Television too, has had its fair share of clerics, some of whom end up helping the local constabulary with their crime cracking abilities: think G.K. Chesterton’s amiable Father Brown or Fr Dowling.
However, in a new film currently available online, British director Michael Whyte chooses instead to present a “fly on the wall” view of day-to-day priestly life.
Entitled simply “Priest”, the documentary follows Father Paul Grogan as he carries out his ministry in the parish of Mary, Mother of God, in the city of Bradford, in the north of England.
Fr Grogan, originally from Halifax, worked as a journalist after graduating from the University of Cambridge. He then went on to train for the priesthood at the Venerable English College in Rome in the late 80s to mid-90s.
Made before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film shows the priest supporting parishioners in various moments of their lives from the opening scene of a funeral, to the administering of the Last Rites.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Michael Whyte explains why he wanted to make a film that explores the highs and lows of priestly mission.
Highs and lows of priestly life
“I think that people have a rather simplistic view of the work of a priest; they tend to see it as quite an easy life, they’ve got a roof over their heads, they’ve got a job for life, they’ve got God on their side… I wanted to show that it was much more than that, and also to show that priests are human beings, they have feelings, they’re not removed from the day to day anxieties and stresses of life.”
This is not the director’s first foray into faith based filmmaking. In fact, it is the final work of a trilogy, following on from No Greater Love, a documentary about a Carmelite Monastery in London and Relics and Roses, which charts the journey of the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux on their visit to England.
Questions of faith
Asked why he was drawn to make three films exploring the Catholic faith, Whyte says, “it comes back to the perennial question that everybody asks. What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What am I doing here? And nobody seems to have an answer to that.”
However, the primary focus for his first entrée into a faith based film, he recalls, came from his curiosity about the Carmelite monastery in his own neighbourhood of Notting Hill. “I was intrigued by the idea that there was this monastery, literally a hundred yards away from where I live.”
When the project eventually came to fruition after a year of filming, the director describes how he came away “with a profound respect for their life and their values.” “I found it one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had in the course of making films,” he said.
Brought up as a lower church Anglican, Mr Whyte notes that he was intrigued by the “theatre or drama” of Catholicism. He also comments that it is a faith that has survived for 2000 years “and is still very intact; it still has a tremendous number of followers, so they’ve got to have something right.”
“Priest” was filmed from the beginning of Lent right through to Easter Sunday, the most important period in the Church’s calendar. And while the director says it was important to chart the events of Holy Week, he adds, it was also due to “God’s providence.”
Although Michael Whyte has a long and distinguished CV and has won numerous awards for his work, he is keen to point out that he never takes for granted the privilege that his work affords him.
“You enter into a complete stranger’s life and you are by their side, you become part of their life and you become very much aware of their strengths and weaknesses and vulnerabilities and if you like, it's a gift because you know if you think about it generally, would you share all your secrets or inner most thoughts with a complete stranger? You probably wouldn't. So when you're suddenly being filmed it’s very difficult to hide those things from somebody… to have access to that is a real privilege.”
One of the scenes in the film shows Fr Grogan administering the Last Rites to parishioner Mary Cunningham. “To be in that room was such a privilege,” Whyte says, “and I found myself thinking I shouldn’t be in this room, I have no right to be in this room because…this is a very intimate moment. At the same time, I’m thinking well, this is exactly what I need to film to show what it’s like, to show what it’s like to be a priest and what a priest’s daily life consists of. So you have those contradictory sorts of feelings, but that in a sense illuminates that kind of privilege that one has when you’re making films, or making documentaries.”
Value of faith
Asked what he would like people to take away from this film, he replies, “I’d like people to see the value of faith…, the comfort of joy and unity it brings to people. That spirit of love and care and beauty and truth, if you like. Also the fact that Fr Paul is a human being; he’s not dissimilar to the rest of us, he has feelings and he gets upset, he can get angry, he can be low, he can be high. He adds that even if you’re not a “God fearing person, you could watch this film and see that there is a value in the faith that these people have.”
To view the trailer for “Priest” you can follow this link