A priest once said in a homily that, if you find life easy, you’re doing it wrong. Our lives are made increasingly complex with each passing year, as we accumulate more emotional baggage, more technology, more stuff. Even if this were not the case, there comes our way any number of situations that we could not foresee and which we find ourselves ill-equipped to handle. It is in these situations, the string of events that make up this earthly existence, that God wants us to invite Him into our lives.

Life is the schoolroom of love, mercy, and forgiveness. It’s a process of continual conversion, of continually striving to make ourselves better through cooperation with God’s will and His grace. A modern-day exemplar of this conversion process, a man who found Jesus Christ amid the world’s darkness, is Fr. Stuart Long (1963-2014). Long, a Catholic priest, is the subject of the recent biopic Father Stu — a passion project that came to fruition through the collaboration of Hollywood Catholics Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson.

After being told Long’s story in 2016 by a priest friend who suggested the man’s life was motion-picture-worthy material, Wahlberg considered the idea of bringing Fr. Long’s story to the big screen. While shooting the comedy Daddy’s Home 2, the actor discussed the inspiring priest with Gibson, his co-star.[1]

From there, the momentum for bringing Long’s story to the big screen only escalated, finally crystallizing in the biopic which released during Holy Week 2022. The result was nothing short of astounding. The film cuts deep, remaining raw and realistic throughout.

In everything from temptation to habitual sin, from suppression of vocation to religious hypocrisy, Father Stu is starkly authentic. It’s the best newly-released film I’ve seen in the better half of a decade. Full disclosure, this review of Fr. Stuart Long’s biopic includes spoilers.

 

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The movie opens with a snapshot from Stuart’s youth. A rambunctious adolescent, he’s jamming out to the radio in the living room while his dad, Bill, sits smoking and drinking, thoroughly unamused. It’s a bittersweet scene. It shows us Stu’s vitality, the energy that he channeled so many different ways throughout his lifetime; it also reminds us of the joy of having a healthy, working body — something Stuart cannot take for granted later in his life. The scene also introduces us to Bill’s long-defining traits: his pessimism and dark, morbid sense of humor.

Stuart goes through most of his life believing he’s not good enough for his dad and realizing that he cannot depend on him either. Instead, the protagonist decides he can only depend on himself, which is just another falsehood. The Longs are a family struck with tragedy and dysfunction. Bill and his wife Kathleen are separated and distant. The traumatic death of their other son, Stephen, looms over the whole family. Kathleen fears losing her other son. Stuart misses his brother. Upon learning of Stu’s later ailment, Bill pulls out snide comments about the futility of conceiving his sons.

In real life, Stuart was athletic from an early age, proving himself a wrestler and an excellent football player in his high school years. Father Stu focuses on his amateur boxing career in adulthood, the imagery of which is brought up repeatedly throughout the film. Stu is a fighter and he has to prove that time and again: as he seeks a new job, as he pursues love, as he proceeds to enter seminary despite a chorus of No’s, as he wrestles with the effects of inclusion body myositis, and as he contends for ordination. It is an uphill battle all the way.

The Weakness of Our Faith

In Father Stu, we are confronted with several characters who, though they confess a single faith with their lips, show themselves to be hypocrites via their actions and intentions. Stuart gets baptized to impress Carmen, his romantic interest. But, at the time, he is not really taking catechesis and grace-filled transformation to heart. Carmen, who initially comes off as a strong person of faith (she teaches Sunday school), later instigates fornication. When Stu first makes advances toward her, she says, “I’m a Catholic. No sex before marriage.” Only to then later start pushing herself on Stuart with the comment, “I know exactly what I’m doing.” The sin seems all the more egregious by the fact that Carmen vocalizes she has no remorse at what she is about to do. (Thankfully, explicit sex is not portrayed on screen.)

Near the end of the film, we learn that Jacob, who began as a fellow parishioner and traveled on through the seminary with Stuart, was pressured into becoming a priest by his dad. All Jacob’s self-righteousness, which had rubbed Stu the wrong way, was the manifestation of man-made expectations on his faith. Jacob’s faith, like that of Stuart and Carmen, is not perfect but is rather in need of purification, bolstering, and direction. These characters show us that even in people of faith, our temptations, anxieties, and failings weigh us down and can get the better of us. But, as the redemptive story of Father Stuart Long and the lives he touched go to show, a deepening of faith can be obtained in Jesus Christ.

Additionally, in the characters of Stu and Jacob, we see two opposing types of reception to their priestly vocation on the part of their parents. For Stu, his atheistic parents wish to dissuade him from becoming a life-long servant of God. As for Jacob, his father ushers him toward the priesthood, viewing it as a family honor. Neither of these responses is optimal nor respectful to the free will of these men trying to find God’s plan for their lives. Yet, both these scenarios are all too realistic and do, in fact, happen to men and women when discerning their vocation.

Many of the characters are redeemed by the close of the film. Carmen, who put up a pretense of noble and rigorous faith that was ultimately lapsed into grievous sin, finally recognizes that she is meant to encourage Stu on his journey to the priesthood. Stuart himself, who was baptized, at first, just to impress his girlfriend, eventually takes a relationship with Christ seriously. And Jacob, who, like Carmen, put on a surface-level air of piety, admits in the confessional that he struggles . . . with his decision, his vocation, everything. He is not perfect, but he is repentant.

The Presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary

While dating Carmen, Stuart first meets her parents over a small dinner. During the meal, her dad tells him about a devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in which pilgrims crawl on their hands and knees to the sacred destination. “I expect no less devotion to my daughter,” Carmen’s dad summarizes. This discussion foreshadows several major events that take place down the road.

Amid a rut in his life where his future is unclear, after a few drinks at a bar, Stuart rides his motorcycle home. On the way, he gets into a collision and is thrown several yards from his bike. Quickly losing fluids and consciousness, Stu sees a woman approaching him clad all in white, her pure garment outlined in golden-yellow trim as if in a body-length halo. Furthermore, the stunning woman has the face of his beloved, Carmen. The iconography is not lost on him. At the beginning of the sequence, he displays the same obstinance and indecency to the Virgin Mary as he has to her Son’s Church up to this point. Stu says he does not want her Son’s help. Calmly yet sorrowfully, tenderly but firmly, she contests this hardness of heart with a bittersweet truth: “He died for you.”

She comforts him before he is rushed to the emergency room. As he lies motionless in the street, Mary’s hands support his head; they are stained in his blood. Our Lady is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She did it once before when she held her only-begotten Son in her arms after the Crucifixion, and now she holds the weakened body of one of those adopted into her Son’s fold, one of her wandering children in need of a mother’s touch.

Later, at the hospital, when Stu’s mom Kathleen rushes to his side, she starts stroking his hair as he remains unconscious. This too — this love of a mother — Stu envisions as being mediated through Mother Mary. After this harrowing experience, amid ongoing struggles, the ex-boxer feels a strong calling to the priesthood. He begins to pray with intentionality. One of the chief prayers we see him reciting is the Rosary, a prayer that tradition says was gifted centuries ago by Mary to St. Dominic.[2] It is a Marian devotion that remains popular among many Catholics today.

By the grace of God, partially mediated through Mary’s intercession, Stu attains the priesthood. But along the way, after his body’s been ravaged by a muscle-eroding disease, there comes a point where he is informed that the diocese won’t permit his ordination. In an emotional scene depicting Seminarian Long’s desperation, his hoping against hope, he falls from his crutches onto the cold stone floor of the church. Deliberately. He then crawls slowly and painfully. His devotion to a virtuous woman he holds very dear causes him to humble himself like the pilgrims to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Stu crawls to the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, there seeking refuge and aid to get back up and move forward at peace with God’s Will. Like the fighter he is, he does get back up.

In this movie, more so than in the vast majority of Catholic flicks, Mary is shown as not just a comforter and advisor — but a genuine person and mother. This being seldom the case, it is beautiful to see a fresh take depicting her as a more involved Mediatrix. Many priest-saints have had strong devotions to Mary including John the Beloved (the Evangelist), Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, Alphonsus Liguori, Maximilian Kolbe, and Pope John Paul II, and many lay people besides. The extent of this devotion shows how important Mary’s intercession with Jesus can be in all of our lives. Father Stu eloquently provides a view into the Virgin Mary’s role as intercessor on our behalf.

Furthermore, in a rather hidden manner, Mary helps get Stuart’s dad back on track with his own life. A man who has been down and out for decades, Bill struggles with alcoholism and even suicidal thoughts. Later, Bill attends a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, deciding to change his life around and there, becoming vulnerable and opening up with a bunch of strangers, we see him clutching a Rosary. The professed atheist is coming out of a spiritual stupor, being led kindly by the hand of the Virgin Mary, mediating Jesus’s mercy to him.

Three-Fold Prayer Why?

Having been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, Stu is distraught. Why would God let this happen to this strong man in the prime of life? Even more so to one who hopes to become a priest? The uncertain future appears gloomier than before. Shaken emotionally, baffled at this news, Stu retreats into church to pray and seek refuge in the Lord.

Yet, even amid prayer, he is restless — caught up in his own fear and anger. I do not know quite how many times he prays “Why?” in one variation or another. Things like: Why me? Why, Lord? Then, as silence ensues and his anger heightens, he says the word three times over, each time intensifying: Why? Why? WHY!?! He ends by yelling at God, then repents of his anger and asks forgiveness.

The three-fold repetition of the same prayer, while it aesthetically ingrains the message in the viewer’s mind, also feels evocative of biblical prayer. To contrast Peter’s denial (thrice over), Jesus asks the head of the apostles if he loves Him. Simon Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Altogether, Peter’s prayer of love for God is made three times. Likewise, when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, He makes supplication to God the Father. The Gospels (see Matthew 26:39-44 and Mark 14:32-40) tell us how Jesus goes to a place beyond where the apostles are resting and there prays three separate times, “saying the same words.” Christ’s prayer to the Father, unlike Peter’s to Jesus, is somber. Jesus knows the fullness of what He is about to undergo. Nevertheless, He has the courage and humility to submit Himself to the Will of the Father, rather than avoiding immense bodily pain.

We see something similar occur in Stu after his three-fold prayer. Like Christ, his spirit was troubled and sorrowful. A sense of despair is lifted from Stu’s shoulders and he humbly accepts this bodily fate, the weight of this new and unexpected cross. Here the would-be priest is already exercising the example of the priestly life: one in imitation of Christ, which includes partaking willingly and humbly in Jesus’s own sufferings.

A Note on Profanity and Religious Films

Among the faithful, one foreseeable turnoff to viewing Father Stu can be the excessive and strong language used throughout (which is one of the main reasons it is rated R), no matter how historically accurate it is. Little children, for instance, should not be accompanying their parents when they sit down to watch it. Yet, the profanity does not make the movie immoral in itself by any means.

Actually, a strain of Christian philosophy suggests that the dramatic depiction of sin — showing it for what it is — instills merit in a story. For embedded in a beautiful story where good is the objective and evil is shown to be such as it is, there is an example of striving for virtue. Characters who can be redeemed give hope that you and I can be redeemed.

Reviewing novels during the 20th century, America Magazine literary critic Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. insisted that realistic depictions of sin may be a benefit to the consumer. According to Gardiner, we should be able “to read books that are realistic — yes, let’s use the horrid word. For there is nothing wrong with realism in art and literature; it is a necessary ingredient.”[3] The same goes for film.

There is but one exception to this rule. As Gardiner states, “It is only when realism descends to utter naturalism and pornography that it becomes false art.”[4] Thankfully, as noted above, Father Stu refrains from any pornographic depictions and even makes a jab at porn, properly noting it as a vice, in some of the dialogue. Thus, the manifold uses of the f-bomb do not take away from the film’s strength, but — as some critics like Gardiner might suggest — the expletives add to the story’s realism, believability, and underlying merits that show the potentiality of the human soul.

Though the foul language is more prominent in Father Stu than most Catholic flicks, Wahlberg’s biopic is not the only film of the genre to depict characters swearing. Other classic religious films that employ strong language, either briefly or profusely, include Lilies of the Field, Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ (where Peter curses, which is biblically accurate), and Calvary where a priest and the sinners surrounding him often drop the f-bomb.[5]* The realism sets Father Stu apart from most respectful priest flicks and saint biopics which tend to fall flat, often garnering a blasé reception.

The profanity in this film is an external sign of an inward reality: anger, brokenness, and hardness of heart. Yet, Stuart Long can be redeemed — is meant to be redeemed. As he explains to Monsignor Kelly, some of the Church’s greatest saints — Paul, Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi — were previously the greatest among sinners. If their example, if the point of Christ’s Church, means anything, it stands for the possibility of change, a reorientation toward God. The greater the sinfulness of the person, the greater void is felt within him which longs to be filled with God. Stuart too deserves to seek conversion in Christ.

Comedy, Sorrow, and Joy

The film’s strong language contributed to one of Father Stu‘s most comical scenes. Bill Long succumbs to road rage, cussing out another driver. After shouting obscenity-laced vitriol at a passer-by, Long stops and looks out his open window to see a little boy staring with mouth agape. He then tries to carry on a conversation with the kid, explaining in a less offensive tone how crazy drivers rub him the wrong way. Remembering he has no filter, Bill faces immediate remorse as the child stares at him and he makes a peppy, friendly excuse for his bad habits just moments after yelling his head off. Bill, while his humor and attitude remain rather bleak, does bring some element of the comedic to Father Stu.

By realizing his vocation in the priesthood, Stuart Long pushed his way through a series of difficult life circumstances: serious medical diagnoses, unemployment, unfulfilled goals, the death of a sibling, diocesan dismissal, the threat of not being ordained, and numerous other hardships and hurdles. Fr. Long has seen plenty of sorrows, as has the Blessed Virgin, but he begins to see it has a purpose, even if it is not one he entirely understands.

As Stuart lets the congregation know in one of his first homilies, “We shouldn’t pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one.” What gives him the right to talk this way? I don’t know — maybe the fact that he lives with a body that’s gradually failing him on a daily basis. The reality that he is totally dependent on God and the others in his life hits home, and he becomes a man humiliated in his need for charity. He is a true disciple of Christ, a man in need. Yet, despite his own dire necessity for assistance in the remaining years of his life, his heart abounds with love for those around him. Near the end of the movie, Fr. Stu is depicted as tirelessly hearing the confessions of others, offering them spiritual guidance and the sacramental forgiveness Jesus extends through the sacerdotal ministry. Amid his own afflictions, Stu strives to alleviate others of their afflictions, particularly their spiritual burdens. It is as touching of a scene as it is exemplary, for Stu’s devotion to his priestly function shows exactly what it means to be Christ-like: to willingly accept the Cross, to undergo torment and pain for the sake of God Who ultimately brings good about through evil, and to minister to others while simultaneously recognizing our own faults and flounderings. On the way to Golgotha, even upon the very Cross where He hung dying, Jesus taught and prayed and consoled — even in His anguish, in the very process of dying. Though a slower death, replete with its own set of pains and humiliations, what Stuart experiences is a share in Christ’s own passion.

This life event, though unlooked-for and — from a fallen human perspective — undesirable, is a cause for joy in Fr. Stu. Note, this state of being is not happiness in the general or humanistic understanding as such. Rather, the Christian’s joy is “the pleasure experienced by one who knows Christ as the ultimate happiness,” which flows from the Holy Spirit.[6] Having chased after so many substitutes and counterfeits of joy, seeking contentment in the satiations of worldlings, Stu finally grasps what a deep relationship with God offers: true joy.

Life didn’t come easy for Stu, especially in his later years. And it is the hardships, or rather how we approach them, that serve as the litmus test for our individual character. By his hope-filled actions, and his eventual peace with God, Fr. Stu showed what kind of man he was.

Theology and Spirituality

One of the spiritual overtones present in Father Stu is one important to Christian teaching: the merit of suffering. If it were otherwise, the Incarnation as well as the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus would have little sway over the human condition or over our eternal end. The enduring of suffering is particularly embodied in Stuart Long himself.

As for theology embedded in the film’s dialogue or symbolism, all of it serves a message of acceptance of suffering and forgiveness of others. Stu must endure his cross. He also must forgive his father Bill, the holier-than-thou seminarian Jacob, and others who have slighted him. This is a deep-cutting message that might sting in old wounds, physical or emotional scarring leftover from any kind of lack of love. But spiritual healing, as Father Stu illustrates, comes through forgiveness.

The only theological remark I contest comes late in the movie. In a homily, Fr. Long alludes to Jesus having a moment of despair upon the Cross. It is when He exclaims, “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (from Matthew 27:46). “Jesus felt betrayed,” Fr. Long explains (insinuating betrayal by God, not Judas). However, if this is the case, this brings into question the divine Nature of Jesus as God the Son. If Jesus is God, He knows fully well that there is hope of His Resurrection since, existing outside of time prior to the Incarnation, He knows what will come to pass.

The explanation of Jesus shouting “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” is, like so many other things our Lord does, rooted in the Old Testament. From the Cross, Jesus quotes Scripture — the beginning of Psalm 22 to be exact. While this psalm, attributed to King David, begins on a depressing note, it ends on a jubilant one. Soon the psalmist praises God saying, “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever!” (Psalm 22:26). Indeed, Jesus died, rose, and lives forever, and His heart beats once again and unceasingly out of love for us. Thus, Jesus’s Eli, Eli exclamation is a statement of hope rather than despair.

That said, for a Hollywood film to err in theological matters, is not headline-grabbing news. It’s been happening since the industry’s earliest days. Hopefully, this homiletic gaffe is nothing more than an unintentional mishap and as such can be overlooked in light of the overwhelmingly positive messages that Father Stu brings to the modern audience.

A Brilliant Cast and a Victorious Fighter

The realism and inspirational flair of Father Stu wouldn’t have been possible without Mark Wahlberg (who plays in the titular role) and the supporting cast. Mel Gibson plays Bill, pretty much an older, angrier version of Mel Gibson. Jacki Weaver plays an understandably emotional Kathleen Long. Teresa Ruiz, who brought Carmen’s character to life on screen, does a fine job offering convincing reactions to accompany the developments in Stu’s spiritual journey. Cody Fern gives Jacob, cautious friend and fellow seminarian of Stu, his seemingly distant and overtly-pious personality. Aaron Moten provides a phenomenal performance of the unsung hero Ham, who is indispensable in aiding Stu through spiritual discernment, the seminary, and inevitably the priesthood.

Malcolm McDowell takes on the role of Monsignor Kelly, a character who seems to be played as more of a caricature of a priest than the real deal, though it was not McDowell’s first time portraying a stern old cleric. He did it once before in St. Patrick: The Irish Legend, where he plays the British Cardinal Quentin who is hastily judgmental of Patrick’s missionary labors.

This cast brings Father Stu to life, showing to what extent this amazing man’s vocation touched the lives of those around them, awakening them to the need to seek God in their lives and cultivate a real relationship with Jesus Christ.

The imagery employed at the end of the film perfectly captures the core of who Stuart Long was — biographically, emotionally, and spiritually. Father Stu ends with a clip of his earlier boxing days. He just won the match. Beaming, a big smile emerging over his bloodied face, he stands triumphantly with his muscular arms outstretched, not unlike Jesus’s outstretched arms nailed to the Cross. Here is the priest, the one who takes after Christ, the crucified and bloodied man, the fighter who’s finished the race — and he is victorious. Surely, this is a foretaste of the glorified existence to be sought in heavenly Paradise. By the end, though his body wasted away, Fr. Long’s soul was as his boxer body had been previously — strong, vibrant, and full of life.This is the definitive Christian story played out in the life of a real man. A man who had his faults. A man who saw the suffering Christ and took up his cross to follow Him.

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Citation Information

John P. Tuttle, “Father Stu: A Story of Faith and Flows, of Dreams and Determination,” An Unexpected Journal: Joy 5, no. 3. (Fall 2022), 199-214.


Endnotes

[1]     Josh Shepherd, “Mark Wahlberg On ‘Tough Grace,’ Mel Gibson, And The Holy Week Premiere Of Father Stu,” Accessed April 27, 2022, https://thefederalist.com/2022/04/08/mark-wahlberg-on-tough-grace-mel-gibson-and-the-holy-week-premiere-of-father-stu/.

[2]     Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.L. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1993), 431.

[3]     Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., Tenets for Readers and Reviewers (New York, NY: America Press, 1944), 18.

[4]     Ibid.

[5]*   The swearing in both The Passion and Lilies of the Field is relatively mild. In the Gibson-directed classic, Peter swears when he is asked about his affiliation with Jesus, a fact recorded in the Gospels (see Matthew 26:73-75; Mark 14:69-72).

[6]     Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.L. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1993), 282.