I do not often give Hollywood credit for getting much of anything right, particularly in matters most near and dear to my heart. Of course, the most important thing in my life is my Faith, and, God willing, it will continue to grow. This cuts two ways. On the one hand, I can easily spot genuine attempts at, for lack of a better phrase, correctly doing Catholicism. On the other, I can sometimes be too critical. In this light, I present Father Stu, the passion project of renowned Catholic actor Mark Wahlberg. It is based on the real-life story of Father Stuart Long. I had not heard of this priest until this movie. To prepare for this review, I did some research. When you see the words “based on the true story,” be prepared for a wide variety of interpretations as to their meaning. The key one is “based.” For example, I can tell you the Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a real person, but I am willing to bet that he was never the imaginary friend to little German youths as in Jojo Rabbit (2019). Or maybe he was? Who knows? Then again, there is no unnecessary disclaimer at the beginning of the movie. Neither does one appear at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (1998), though the Normandy invasion verifiably took place. You can go to France today and still see the holes in the ground from artillery bursts. In the case of Father Stu, the title being the nickname for the real Father Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg), reality and fantasy are pretty close. There are some major differences, and they will undoubtedly annoy some. What should be focused on is the message, which shall form the basis of why I will recommend it.
If you have seen the trailers for Father Stu, or made it through the first paragraph, you might not expect the first thing you see to be a sunglassed kid grooving to the sounds of Elvis. It certainly is not what his quick to criticize dad Bill Long (Mel Gibson) expects, as he mocks Stu while smoking and drinking a beer. The suggestion is that it turns Stu into a fighter. The next scene would suggest that he becomes a real one, as we see him as a boxer. He enjoys moderate success as an amateur in Montana, even contemplating a professional career, until a jaw injury forces him to reconsider. Actually, it is his mother, Kathleen (Jacki Weaver), who convinces him that the dire diagnosis given him be the doctor means he should try something new with his life. There is some despair, including a night in jail for drunk and disorderly conduct, but when he comes up with his next idea, there is no one who can convince him otherwise. He decides to head to Los Angeles to become an actor. Understanding that he needs to support himself until his career gets going, he takes a job at a grocery store as a clerk in the meat market. It is while behind the counter one day, not having had any real success landing the hoped-for big-time role, that he sees Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). It is love at first sight for Stu, but not so much for Carmen, who rebuffs his corny pick-up lines. Remember, Stu is not one to be easily daunted in the face of obstacles. When he locates a flyer she leaves in the store for the Catholic Church where she attends, he goes there and waits outside for her. She continues to give him the cold shoulder, prompting him to enter the church during Mass. He is not subtle about his reasons for being there, even in the middle of the service. Afterwards, he finally gets her to talk to him, but she insists that she cannot be with a non-Catholic. Admittedly, his aim is to, as the saying goes, “get in her pants.” Yet, he does submit to going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), and is Baptized. Unfortunately, after a night at a bar, he decides to drive his motorcycle home after having had a few drinks. Along the way, his speeding bike slams into the side of a car, launching him over the other vehicle and out into oncoming traffic where he is run over a couple more times. There are a few religious experiences that come out of this episode that I will later describe in greater detail. Suffice to say, they help lead him to the realization that he is being called to be a priest. At first, no one believes him. Carmen is devastated as she had hoped to marry him, even giving her virginity to him. His dad dismisses it as nonsense. His mom thinks he means to dress up as one for Halloween. No, he intends to be ordained as a priest. Because he does not have all the money to enter the seminary, he literally writes Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm MacDowell) an “IOU.” It would seem that those closest to him are not the only ones doubting the commitment of somebody with Stu’s checkered past to such a vocation. Regardless, Stu is able to talk his way into the school. He takes to it with his usual verve until one day, while playing basketball with his classmates, he falls to the ground and is unable to get up on his own. The doctors diagnose him with inclusion body myositis, a rare and terminal disease that essentially causes all the muscles in the body to slowly stop working. Again, there are those who doubt whether his progressively worsening condition will allow him to fulfill the duties of a priest. This time, Monsignor Kelly wins, and Stu is sent home to stay with his parents in Montana. One day, now in a wheel chair, Bill volunteers to give Stu a ride. Stu is confused why his father would make such a fuss, getting dressed up for the occasion, until he enters the church and sees Monsignor Kelly, Carmen, and the bishop waiting with ordination garments. Stu is to be ordained, after all. He then goes to the Big Sky Assisted Living facility where he lives out the rest of his life, hearing Confessions for people with lines stretching out the door.
I suppose the next logical place to go with this treatment of Father Stu is to discuss how much of this is accurate to his real life. In short, it is pretty close to the actual events. Stu was, indeed, a boxer, even a Golden Gloves amateur champion in the state of Montana. The jaw injury, like in the movie, is the event that forced him to attempt a career in acting. It is from here that things get muddled. The girlfriend existed, and was instrumental in getting him to convert to Catholicism (even though he went to a Catholic high school and college). The accident happened, too. However, the order in which they occurred seems to have been switched in the movie, with the motorcycle collision coming after his Baptism. Further, the cinematic version suggests that the seminary Stu attended is near Los Angeles. I get it. Motion pictures only have so much time in which to tell their stories. I do not necessarily mind the conflation of events here, either. It is just a shame because, for this Catholic, the process of him becoming a priest was a bit more drawn out, and interesting. Similar to the on-screen Stu, the real Stu had to break it off with his girlfriend, with whom he was serious. To test this call, though, he spent a few years teaching at a Catholic high school. His next move was to join the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. I geeked a bit when I heard about this because I am pretty familiar with their order, having gone through the School of Spiritual Direction at the House of Prayer in Clearwater, Florida, with a few members of their order. What became evident to them, though, is that Stu was meant to be a diocesan priest, and he entered for his home diocese of Helena, Montana. Towards the end of his formation, there was some question as to whether or not he could be a priest, and there was consideration given to keeping him as a transitional deacon (basically your last year in the seminary). Unlike the film, Stu was never kicked out, but the leader of the diocese of Helena at that time, Bishop George Thomas, eventually made the decision to have Stu ordained. It appears less dramatic than what goes on in the movie, with the parishioners of the congregation where Carmen and Stu meet petitioning the seminary on Stu’s behalf. In any case, the rest of the stuff from there until the end is largely true.
Another aspect of the real Father Stu that is left out of Father Stu is his pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, during his deaconate year. Let me be a little more precise. The reason why Stu undertook this journey is because he believed that the healing waters there would cure his condition. If you are not familiar with Lourdes, I will briefly explain. In the mid-nineteenth century in a small village in southern France, a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, now St. Bernadette, saw a vision of Our Lady in a cave near the river. From that point on, the waters, which also bubbled up in the cave, have been known for their miraculous properties. Unfortunately, they did not take away Stu’s condition. There was serious doubt, but he learned to accept the disease as the Cross God had called him to bear. None of this is seen in the movie. What you do see is a vision of Jesus in the bar before he gets on his motorcycle, warning him not to operate the vehicle. It is not what you might expect, with Our Savior in dazzling white robes with angelic choirs and lights. Instead, he is just a perceptive guy at the bar who happens to look a bit like Jesus. The most moving part, though, is while lying on the pavement after the accident, Mary holds him while kneeling down next to him, weeping, but telling him he will live through this moment. In reality, Stu had a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary, to which this scene speaks. Finally, while in a coma in the hospital, Carmen visits him with a Bible, Rosary, and Scapular, setting them next to his hand. When it touches these articles, he begins to revive. Stu may not have walked out of the waters of Lourdes as he hoped, but healing comes in many different varieties. For him, the pilgrimage gave him the perspective he needed to carry the Cross. In the movie, though it may seem like these experiences gave him back his body, they are what set him on the path of becoming a priest. In doing so, while there would be some anger with God over his fate, it also leads to the repairing of many relationships in his life. In either case, God is glorified.
Given what I have said thus far, you might be surprised to find out that Father Stu is rated R. That is because there is a great deal of foul language in the movie. Also, the accident scene is a bit tough to watch. Finally, while they cut away from the sex scene between Carmen and Stu, it is pretty clear what happened. Thus, I would not show this movie to young ones. Still, it should be seen. I saw this film on Holy Thursday, wrote this review on Good Friday, and I am putting it out during the Easter season. During these Holiest of days, Jesus transcends suffering, giving Himself up to death so that we might live. In an interview I read with Bishop Thomas, he describes the discernment he went through in making the decision to go ahead with Stu’s ordination. The thought he was led to is that there is power in suffering. Whether you are talking about the cinematic or living version, Stu recognized this as well, doing so with a humor and wit that came through on-screen and in-person. This is such a wonderful lesson for us all.