Monday, February 13, 2017

Ainsi soient-ils

American TV generally has not been noted for producing strong and successful dramatic TV series focusing on religious themes and set in real religious congregations. So imagine my surprise when I accidentally came across (on Netflix) the three seasons of an amazing French TV series (in French with English subtitles) that does just that! 

The Churchmen is the English title for the French dramatic TV series Ainsi soient-ils (So be it, or Amen). It follows 5 French seminarians from diverse backgrounds who enroll at Paris's historic Capuchin seminary. One is a conventional candidate, a youngish "youth ministry" type, another is a Black architecture student, a third is from a thoroughly dysfunctional French family, the fourth is a wealthy scion of a dysfunctional in a very different way, business-owning family in Versailles, and the fifth is someone who grew up in what we would likely call "public housing" and who found religion while in jail for having murdered some criminal Russian thug. Season One especially introduces and focuses on the five, following them through their eventful first year of formation, but almost immediately becomes a story not just about them and their challenges and struggles, but also about their family difficulties, their clerical and religious formators - notably their progressiste rector, Etienne Fromenger (photo) - and all those other worldly, ambitious, and powerful prelates whose decisions and actions impact the seminary and its future priests positively and negatively. 

Admittedly, Church life in France faces distinct challenges that make it different in important respects from the situation seminarians and clergy experience in the Untied States, but a mark of how good this program is, it seems to me, is precisely how easily one can imagine so much of what happens in this French series as happening in an American setting. Certainly there were scenes and situations that recalled my own formation experience and that of others I know. Similarly so many of the the emotional and spiritual struggles - and the institutional challenges - facing the priests on the seminary faculty (and in the third season by the newly ordained priests themselves) would likely resonate with many American priests no less than European ones.

The clerical characters (and others as well) are all very well developed in a way that avoids narrow categories and superficial stereotypes. The presumptive "good guys" all have their flaws and faults. And even the ambitious, worldly prelates and their entourages are real people, with multiple dimensions and apparently authentic faith. The challenges and the burdens of priesthood in this (or likely any) era are fairly presented, along with the diverse ways different prelates, priests, and seminarians attempt to resolve them - sometimes well, sometimes poorly, sometimes in uplifting and  edifying ways, at other times in sadly unedifying fashion.  

If the series has a fault, it may be its attempt to tell too many stories at once. I recognize that this is now the reigning dramatic style and undoubtedly reflects the limitations of our contemporary attention spans. Still, that somewhat minor quibble aside, the series is effective in allowing the viewer to enter into the seminarians' and others' personal religious and social experiences in a way which sheds a brightly honest light on many dimensions of Church life and particularly priestly life in modern post-Christian societies, but always in an engagingly respectful way which invites the viewer to empathize with almost everyone in the story.  

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