Saturday, February 27, 2016

Going My Way

Most people are familiar with the 1944 movie Going My Way, which featured Bing Crosby as a modern young curate, Fr. O'Malley, and Barry Fitzgerald as an old irish pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbons, at a certain Saint Dominic's parish. Members of my generation should also recall the TV series of the same name and theme, that aired for some 30 episodes in the 1962-1963 season. (TV Seasons were serious seasons back then!). It featured Gene Kelly as Fr. O'Malley, Leo G. Carroll as Fr. Fitzgibbons, and added Dick York as Tom Colwell, an old friend of Fr. O'Malley and Director of the Community Center that serves the neighborhood kids. I recently learned that the TV series is now available on DVD, and I have been gradually watching it, episode by episode, enjoying it all.

Of course, watching the series today in black-and-white, with its seat-belt-free big cars and wall portraits of Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy, is nostalgic on multiple levels. Not only did I watch it as a teenager myself in 1962-1963, but the world it portrays is instantly recognizable to me as the the Catholic Church and the New York City of my childhood, a simpler (but not uncomplicated) world in which the Church was seamlessly interwoven with all aspects of neighborhood life, when there was still real neighborhood life. And, on top of that, it was filmed and is set in the Manhattan theater district and used the facade of Saint Malachy's, the famed "Actor's Chapel at 239 West 49th Street (photo), as its "Saint Dominic's." I myself was once part of the Saint Malachy's community, having ministered there as a deacon during the early 1990s.

The post-war world in which the TV series was set was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations, bot religious and secular, starting with gender roles and family life and moving onward and outward from there. To be fair, not everyone benefitted equally from those rules and expectations, and for some in the end the burdens may have seemed to outweigh the benefits. But, for the majority, the burdens paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life.  In the half-century and more that has followed, both Church and society have changed, and such stable urban neighborhoods have largely disappeared. Enormous economic and cultural changes have eviscerated the opportunities available for working class people with modest educational background and have radically diminished their prospects for financial and social stability in successfully functioning families. Social change always has winners and losers, and in this case there certainly have been lots of losers.

That said, the 1960s TV series captures that world well. Of course, it is somewhat idealized in that the problems presented to the priests will invariably get satisfactorily resolved by the end of the episode, often due to a quick turnaround in someone's attitude, thanks to Fr, O'Malley's benign influence. It is idealized too in how good the priests are at everything - and how they are unfailingly available always whenever anyone has a problem. Even then priests couldn't really solve all problems, of course, but they probably did have more resources available - notably the good will of the other major players in their relatively stable, intact communities. 

As a teenager, I regularly turned to the parish priests as the only source of guidance I knew. My parish was staffed by a religious order. So there were several priests I would pester over the years with my personal problems. Just like the characters in Going My Way, I thought nothing of showing up at the rectory and asking to see Father so-and-so and taking up his time with my latest worries. Looking back, I marvel at the patience they all showed. They may not have had the answers I needed. But at least they listened and at least tried to be helpful. As in the TV show, no one ever turned me away or said he was too busy. I will always be grateful to them, and for them. Years later, when applying to the seminary myself, I referenced how priests had been very helpful to me in my time of turmoil and how I hoped to be similarly helpful myself. In fact, few people nowadays ring the bell to ask the priest for personal advice. As religion has diminished in importance, the context for most problems has likewise changed, and there are lots of other, more cutting-edge resources for people to turn to But there was a time when people routinely didn't have those resources, and Going My Way captures that time and place so well.

Could such a series be made today? The TV sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s  were creatures of their time. Today people have different expectations. A successful series probably would have to show more development in its characters over time. It wouldn't do to repeat the same sort of scenario week after week with little or no change. But I think parish life still provides interesting material of significant human interest - provided, of course, an audience can accept the premise that what these characters are doing is worthwhile. And, maybe more to the point, can accept characters who themselves believe that how they are living and what they are doing as priests is really worthwhile.

Scriptwriters and producers would likewise have to accept that premise. In the late 1990s, ABC attempted a series about parish life. It was called Nothing Sacred, and was set in a contemporary parish in Chicago. It won an award or two for attempting to grapple with religious faith in a contemporary context, but It was canceled after 15 episodes. As in Going My Way, the priest who was the show's star excelled at everything he did. But, unlike Going My Way, he was sometimes at odds with the Church. In other words, he did not seem so certain about how he was living and what he was doing as Fr. Fitgibbons and Fr. O'Malley did decades earlier. Unlike the strong, united, self-confident Church of the 1962, which Going My Way so accurately reflected, Nothing Sacred reflected a very different world, one in which the Church had lost so much of her self-confidence and was weakened in her ability to influence the world around her because of her own internal divisions and conflicts. Reflecting the media's obsessive preoccupation with such divisions and conflicts whenever treating religion, Nothing Sacred got caught up in that - and so was controversial from the start. By casting its clergy as participants in an internal ecclesiastical culture war, Nothing Sacred missed an authentic opportunity to portray the more diverse reality of day-to-day parish experience.

Going My Way actually did that - albeit in an idealized and sentimentalized fashion which today makes it seem anachronistic and nostalgic. But, if one can descend from the throne of our (justified or not) 21st-century cultural superiority in order to identify with a very different time and place (but one still within living memory), Going My Way is great entertainment and still leaves the watcher with something worthwhile to think about.

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