November 27, 2015


"The Letters" is another film about the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (acted with aplomb by Juliet Stevenson)--specifically that part of her life where, posthumously, personal letters that revealed her prolonged dark night of the soul surfaced. The stunning revelation is chronicled in the book "Come Be My Light--The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta." She had wanted these letters burned at her death, but, thankfully, her spiritual advisors did nothing of the sort. To know that the woman whose name is synonymous with acts of charity ("Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa?") struggled with not just intermittent spiritual dryness but full-blown, persistent desolation, can give courage to even the most skeptical of believers and non-believers alike.


The question is: Does the film succeed in covering this omnipresent yet hidden aspect of Mother Teresa's life? Is it actually the focus of the film? Not exactly. Granted, it's very difficult to externalize such a state of soul in film, especially when it's also necessary to show her intense, concurrent missionary work and tell the story of her life...but could it have been done? Yes, and here's how.
1) I would say that most people are familiar with the notable events of Mother Teresa's life, so many details--although fascinating, and many never seen before in film--could have been left out.  2) It is not necessary to retell almost the entire life story of someone in a biopic. It's better to focus on one part of their life and go deep. 3) The pace really needed to be stepped up. I felt that "The Letters" needed a lot of editing instead of the feel of everything unfolding in real time. Had the pace been snappier and the film unflinchingly edited, it could have accomplished much more and we would have a much better insight into who the private Mother Teresa was (perhaps even more quotes from her letters, more prayer times/work times where we could see/hear the devastation of her spirit manifested). Otherwise? This is a well-made film, capturing the spirit and spirituality of Mother Teresa (not turning her into a secular social worker).


All that being said: 1) We can't have too many movies about Mother Teresa. 2) A new generation wants new films and doesn't want to have to watch old films. 3) The film succeeds as a lovely depiction of a call from God in the life of one of the 20th century's greatest luminaries. (Mother Teresa's vocation was a "call within a call" since she was already a professed Sister with the teaching order of Loretto.)

The film's slow, reflective pace and truly lovely soundtrack makes it suitable as a retreat film or for viewing when one is in a contemplative mood.  The start of the film is especially laid back as the priest-postulator of her cause for canonization (Rutger Hauer!) speaks with her spiritual director (Max von Sydow!) about the secret that Mother Teresa hid from the world: her trial of darkness. Both priests are clearly used as devices to give us information in the baldest of ways (postulator calmly and blandly questioning spiritual director). But it gets interesting once we jump to the heart of the story, and whenever Mother Teresa (the adroit and utterly believable Stevenson nails Mother's Albanian accent) is onscreen, it's good.


Mother's dark night of the soul lasted for approximately fifty years--beginning when her work with the poorest of the poor began. No wonder she famously said: "Sometimes it's hard for me to smile at Jesus." Yet she was ever faithful to her prayer time, her religious life, her apostolic duties, and grew her congregation, the "Missionaries of Charity" to about three thousand while she was still alive.
I remember when Mother Teresa's spiritual struggle was made public, atheists rejoiced. Yes. Let me say that again. Atheists rejoiced that she understood them, that she was almost one of them. In fact, there was even some confusion (quickly cleared up, however) that Mother was an atheist herself! Mother's objective belief in God never wavered, she simply didn't feel Him at all, and she even felt a persistent negativity that she was unacceptable to God, that He didn't love her somehow, even though she acknowledged intellectually that God loves everyone. She experienced only God's absence--the "via negativa"--which makes her a very postmodern saint, doesn't it?

“If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”  –Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa had a succinct way with words, similar to Pope Francis. Her manner of speaking is well-portrayed in the film: Young nun: "I'm afraid this man is dying, Mother!" "Yes, well, we can just give him a little bit of God's love. That's all." "The greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved."


The film captures well her simplicity, her clever and unconquerable spirit, her seeing the face of God in the poor, and her delight in loving and serving Christ in the poor, her poor. The film strongly brings out the moments of opposition to this "white Christian woman teacher" who lived among and almost exclusively cared for Hindus. She did not hide Jesus from them, and yet she had no ulterior motives of wanting to ultimately convert them (something Christians criticized her for!). But there's a difference between NOT wanting people to come to Christ (or being indifferent about it) and NOT being called to be the one to make that happen. Certainly, she would have been delighted if she sparked mass conversions to Christianity, but she was simply obeying Christ in taking care of these people. She stressed: "I am here to help."

The work of "development" is often seen as pre-evangelization by the Catholic Church. And what greater actual evangelization could there be than putting faith, hope and love into action in the name of Christ?  These utterly destitute "untouchables" had no one but her to help them. Little by little, she won over everyone, including the Vatican (for permission to begin her new congregation) and the government of India, locally and nationally--to the point that she was given a State burial.


It may be hard for us to imagine now, but in her day, Mother Teresa was a controversial figure to some people. Catholic social justice aficionados accused her of not attacking systemic problems of poverty, not getting to the root cause of it all (thereby presuming to tell her what her vocation was/should be). A particular "progressive" Catholic periodical even calumniated her by saying she zipped around the world in a "Lear jet" with a "dishrag wrapped around her head" (referring to a few public speeches she gave: at the UN, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, etc.). Mother, of course, always had the perfect answer for her detractors: "While we are discussing systemic causes of poverty, this man is going to die in the gutter. May I take care of him first?" She often refused large sums of money as "checkbook charity," and instead would invite the prospective donor to "come, experience the joy of loving." She loved and cared about the rich as much as the poor.


--Max von Sydow (Swedish) played Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," The Apostle Peter in "Quo Vadis," and the priest in "Exorcist 1 & 2." Check out his extremely long and illustrious career on  His first credit was in 1949!

--Rutger Hauer (Dutch) has an outlandish personal history--perfect for an actor (check it out Sr. Helena's favorite roles of his: "Blade Runner" (the 1982 director's cut WITHOUT the cheesy voiceover) and "Escape from Sobibor." (Both are must-see's.)

November 24, 2015


If you already know how the "Hunger Games" saga ends, you may want to skip this third installment--unless you are fond of tedium. The beginning gets off the ground well enough with lots of dialogue and ominous music that is just setting the stage for future action scenes. However, said action scenes drag on and on, do little to advance the story, and one infuriatingly long sequence involves scores of fantastical creatures that just keep coming and coming and coming at our characters. It became almost comical and all I could do was envision those police cars piling up and up and up in "The Blues Brothers," or myriad clowns piling out of a VW.


At times toward the middle and end of the film, the movie felt almost unedited, like the filmmakers just let the camera run, or they just got tired of editing, but I suspect they were running out of ideas at this point in the film and also just wanted to make the ending of the whole series feel epic (by its completely unnecessary length of 137 minutes). This lack of editing gives the story an uninteresting, amateurish feel, like first-time filmmakers who are so attached to their every shot that they can't decide which "gems" to get rid of. This desperate need for editing was felt not only in the action scenes, but also when the camera constantly plays on Katniss' (Jennifer Lawrence) face for prolonged periods of time. Granted, Jennifer Lawrence may prove to be the Meryl Streep of her generation, and she masterfully holds the camera's (and our) attention with every slight shift in mood, every small twitch or squint, but...enough already.

Another consistent flaw with The Hunger Games, IMHO, is the fact that Katniss' love interest is all wrong. The characters and/or actors of Peeta and Gale should have been switched.  I find no chemistry between Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss, but lots between Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss. Am I wrong?


Let's recall at this point, Suzanne Collins' intention for writing "The Hunger Games" in the first place. She came from a military family and wanted to get young people thinking about the seriousness and horror of war before they might blithely or naively consider enlisting at the tender age of 18. Although--as I stated in my reviews of the previous films in the series--I have big problems with the milieu of children killing children (even granted Collins' noble cause), this film has some excellent ethical discussions that unfold organically as the characters are forced to make decisions, react, retaliate and plan their course of action.

The strongest point of the film is Katniss' moral compass that just won't quit. She gets the complexity of the situation, but she never wants to lose her humanity. She is not afraid of the hard thing, of the hardest thing if it's the right thing. The questions the film raises are worth looking at carefully: If we are willing to use the same ruthless tactics as our "enemy," what makes us so different from our enemy? Does it matter if we're any different from our enemy? And how different are we from our enemy, really, as fellow human beings? Can we win if we use ethical tactics and our enemy doesn't? What if we begin to commit the same atrocities that kicked off a war in the first place--then what are we fighting for? Where does it all end? What happens when authority breaks down in the ranks? Is there one mutual enemy of us all? Clarity is needed more than ever in times of armed conflict.


There are some good shockers at the end--but getting there was fatiguing to say the least (I can't tell you how many times I looked at my watch), and the relentlessly heroic soundtrack was draining. Katniss is still looking a lot like Joan of Arc (and a bit like Cupid in the promo pic above), even literally "catching on fire" in a bad way (Joan died by being burned at the stake at 19 years old). Joan prided herself on never having killed anyone personally and even reached out to the enemy, begging them to save their lives, even as she was in the thick of battle with her men. (Katniss, also, is always concerned about saving as many lives on both sides as possible.) When President Coin (Julianne Moore) sees that a French Revolution-style bloodbath is imminent, she finds a creative way to lessen the bloodshed.

In some ways, the whole "Hunger Games" experience is summed up toward the end of the film in a letter from Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, RIP) to Katniss. He tells her that they have now entered that sweet period of peace that happens after a bloody conflict while the horrors are still fresh in people's minds. The question to all of us is: how quickly will we forget and return to our all-too-easy bloodlust? To violence as one of the first and best solutions?


--Caesar Flickerman's (Stanley Tucci) purple eyebrows

--Like "Twilight," two men love one woman (the ultimate female fantasy)

--People are more scary than fantastical creatures. Fantastical creatures are non-sadistic and, well, dumb.

--This movie could have been named "Sewer Games."

--So  many plot points of the advance on the Capitol were unrealistic: they were in broad daylight and didn't get killed? Didn't the Capitol have face-recognition software and surveillance technology everywhere?

--Irish music is always the go-to music for weddings, happy times and happy dances


November 17, 2015


Today begins the Novena to Blessed Father James Alberione! 
Prayer:…/prayer-through-interce… …
Feastday: November 26
Blessed Fr. James Alberione, SSP -- Founder of the Pauline Family -- 1884-1971

November 5, 2015



Excellent book!

This excellent book is what we really need today. Stanton walks the walk himself (with many true and deep friendships with people in the LGBT community--without compromising a Biblical, sacramental worldview). I am a Roman Catholic nun who teaches Theology of the Body and I have been desperately looking for a rational, even-handed, truly loving (the truth in charity, the charity of the truth) book like this to give us insight into our rapidly changing culture and what our response as followers of Christ needs to be.

This is not a book about activism, but about individuals' sincere relationships with other individuals--who just might disagree with each other (and our world no longer knows how to civilly disagree, but only to sling loaded, incendiary, accusative slogans at each other). Stanton breaks down the myths on both "sides." I follow the pastoral practices of wholeheartedly (Courage Int'l, the Catholic Church's spiritual support and pastoral outreach to the same-sex attracted: recommended on the U.S. Bishops website), and have many friends in this organization. I find "Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor"'s in-depth explorations and advice to be in accord with these guidelines. This is not a theoretical book but one of sound, practical advice and real-life examples.

November 2, 2015


"Spotlight" is the recounting of the "Spotlight" team of intrepid investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who broke the Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse story in January 2002--mainly concerning the Archdiocese of Boston. For starters, this is not a Church-bashing film even though it easily and rightfully could have been. It's an accurate, stark, almost understated presentation. It's rated "R" simply and appropriately for subject matter. Just enough of the horrific details of cases are disclosed in the film, the rest is hinted at discreetly.

This is a story that had to be told, and the filmmakers have done a capable and responsible job.


"Spotlight"--as a feature film--is not a pseudo-documentary, nor is it juicy, sensational, exploitative entertainment. (And it feels wrong to critique it as such.) "Spotlight" is what I would call an "information film." The acting, too, is muted: none of the big name actors shine. The excellent cast seem to be humbly striving only to serve the story. Is it hard to watch? Yes, of course. The tone is somber, dreary and somewhat suffocating--as it should be. The tone is painstakingly consistent. The monolithic power of the Catholic Church (till 2002) over civic, religious and spiritual affairs in the city of Boston is chilling. It extended even into the Globe where employees (many of whom were Catholic) simply knew you don't take on the Catholic Church. They are even trained to believe that when the Catholic Church dismisses claims, they can't possibly be true. It took an outside editor from New York (the New York Times purchased the Boston Globe in 1993) to press the issue.


The timeline unfolds without much fanfare. Little by little, the magnitude of the number of priests, victims, and the span of years and cover-ups becomes clearer and clearer. Since we, the audience, presumably know the sordid story and outcome, there are few surprises and no real highs, lows or even serious crisis points. The kicker is that everything, all the evidence was hiding in plain sight. All the reporters needed was a few names of priest-abusers, the secret code words "sick leave," "unassigned," and "leave of absence," and the cooperation of a few victims, lawyers and judges. Much is made of the fact that B.C. High (a Catholic Jesuit boys high school that some of the reporters themselves attended, maintained an infamous priest-coach molester on staff) is directly across the street from the Boston Globe building.

Ironically, both the Catholic Church in Boston and the Boston Globe were at the height of their influence at the beginning of the new millennium, while a third character--the internet--is just becoming a serious player (a billboard for big, bad AOL is subtly placed in the film).


Very self-effacingly--and I would say unnecessarily and misplacedly--the film blames The Globe itself in a big way for not reporting the story years earlier when lawyers and victims provided plenty of damning information that went ignored. Whatever culpability The Globe bears, they more than made up for it by compiling overwhelming, carefully-researched evidence that wouldn't be just another isolated story that would get buried. "The Church" and Cardinal Law are distant, cold, uncaring shadows. The abusing priests are sick and distorted men--almost excused. The names Geoghan, Shanley and Talbot (among others) will conjure up ugly memories for all who lived at the heart of this nightmare or on its peripheries.


The faces and voices of the victims are given three-dimensional reality and the major focus. Even the heroic, crusading lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian--who insisted on bringing victims' cases to the courts to expose the Church's wrongdoing--is modestly underplayed. 


Part of the initial incredulity of sectors of the public and the average Catholic in the pew to the Globe's scoop was due to the Globe's notorious anti-Catholicism since its very inception in 1872 (not unlike most of the old Boston WASP establishment). And many just didn't believe that so many heinous crimes of this nature could have been so well hidden for so long. If it were true, surely we would have known? Surely we would have heard some rumors and gossip? Whoever did know something was silenced with hush money, or gave up when crushed by the power of the Church's legal and "moral authority" arsenal and sway. But it didn't take long for the undeniable, verifiable veracity of the charges to grip the city and the world.


There is precious little aftermath in the film, as it wraps up on the day the first big story is released (there were a total of 600 stories run relentlessly about the scandal for at least a year afterward in the Globe). A few words of Epilogue are given, and then we are left with a gaping wound of sadness.


There does not seem to be any hope put forth in this film. Not about healing for victims or reform for the Church. But maybe that was not a part of the film's scope. Maybe there is no way to find the silver lining here. There is also hardly any insight into the root causes of this terrible state of affairs. It's just raw evil on display. Perhaps this is the best way for this particular film to handle this grave matter. Sexual abuse destroys hope. No soothing, reassuring sugar-coating or "Hollywood ending" in this film.


There is hardly any mention of God in this film. No angry questioning of "Why did God allow this?!" or "Where was God?!" or  "How could purported men of God do this?" or "This has destroyed my faith in God!" There is only mention of "devout Catholics" and those who "go to church" or "don't go to church." There didn't even need to be a distinction made between a good God and bad men who represent God (and are doing a terrible job at it) because God is pretty much absent from the film. The one tragically poignant mention of God is from a male victim, now an adult, who says: "You don't say no to God" (meaning when a priest propositioned him at twelve years old, the only right answer was "yes"). Again, perhaps this was the best way to handle "God" in this story that had nothing to do with a good God, and everything to do with bad men. (The Church, although divinely instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, is still human and sinful because of the free will of her members--even those who hold the authority. Thankfully, the sacraments and everything we need still operates through these men, regardless of their personal holiness.)


As I see it, three minor drawbacks to the film are:

1) They got Cardinal Law a bit wrong. They made him a much older man (he was only 68 in 2001) with a hint of an Irish accent (Wha?). They made him a rather flat--although bold--stereotypical bureaucratic figure, when in reality he was a magnetic, charismatic personality who had actually been a media favorite when he first came to Boston.

2) The feeble, brief explanations given for the (unfettered) abuse were screaming to be explored and were even contradictory.
--"Celibacy is the issue. It creates a culture of secrecy." Really?? So if one attempts to practice (priestly) celibacy they have a good chance of being/becoming a depraved, predatory pedophile? And how are celibacy and secrecy related? This makes no sense. And sadly, most sex abusers of children? Married men.
--Another reason given  is that some of the priests were "psycho-sexually stunted at the level of a 12-year-old"--which may be very true, but that does not make one an automatic repeat child molester. The one priest molester we see being interviewed begins to say that he was raped, but the thought was not continued. (The rest of that statistic is that it was discovered that some priests who molested children were molested by priests themselves when they were children. They grew up, became priests and continued the incestuous cycle.)

3) I would like to have seen some rage in the film. Some of the rage that I felt and still feel in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps the filmmakers are leaving that up to us, the audience.


But of course, there is hope. Although sexual abuse (and spiritual-sexual abuse) takes a deep, deep toll, and a certain proportion of the victims tragically committed suicide, emotional healing is always a possibility.


"Spotlight" is an important film to see, even if you kept up and delved into these darkling waters--as I did--when they first hit the shore. The restrained even-handedness of the story-telling is remarkable and will prevent it from being a "controversial" film. It's truly a "talkie" film--as you would expect the milieu of a newspaper to be--but never tedious. The narrative and the horror is in the information itself each time more is unearthed. Why should you see this film? To honor the victims, first of all, and second of all to understand how corruption--of any sort--works, in order to be vigilant and oppose it. NEVER AGAIN.

Has ANY good come of all this sorrow? The suffering of the children, teens and their families has not been totally in vain. There is now a much greater awareness of the sexual abuse of minors all over the world, and new laws have been created to protect young people where there were none.


--this problem is centuries old
--it's not celibacy that is the problem, but a culture of secrecy brought about by a culture of absolute power and lack of accountability
--absolute power corrupts absolutely
--abuse of power is not an inevitability, it's a choice
--unbridled male chauvinistic power is insensitive to women, children and the vulnerable
--pedophiles automatically gravitate to wherever they have trusted access to children (seminaries, schools, sports teams, law enforcement, etc.)
--seminaries did not do good screening of candidates
--anyone who reported behavior was threatened (get kicked out of seminary themselves, lose a job/position)
--silence/playing the game=perks, advancement
--it was a numbers game (to have lots of priests)
--it was keeping up appearances (bishops knew they could quash "problems," abusers knew they would never get in trouble and would always be shielded: the perfect set-up)
--it was keeping up appearances ("not on my watch")
--toward the middle of the 20th century, psychiatrists and psychologists got involved (assessments, "treatment") and kept giving the green light to put the priest back in ministry (bishops blindly "obeyed")
--it wasn't known that pedophilia is not "curable" (but it's also not rocket science to see that a man abusing over and over and over and over again needs to be stopped, removed permanently)
--gross blindness and ignorant cluelessness as to what sexual abuse does to a child/teen
--careerism, clericalism, wrong priorities
--evil and sin

--the clergy sex abuse problems will continue unless there is courageous breaking with mentalities, cultures, habits, patterns and cycles
--the presence of women in all (non-ordained) positions at all levels and places of Church life will help mitigate undisciplined male power (and male lack of empathy and sympathy)
--following preventative and protective protocols for child safety immediately and unilaterally
--child safety is everyone's job, not just those in positions of authority
--stringent screening/dismissals at seminary level
--thorough training in human sexuality for seminarians (including THEOLOGY OF THE BODY)
--a deep prayer life, spiritual direction in seminary
--priestly spirituality
--normal, healthy relationships with laypeople, families, women of God
--priestly fraternity, camaraderie, seminary follow-up, oversight by and relationship with bishop
--bishop accountability (Pope Francis is putting this in place)
--availability: doing ministry where needed (while maintaining healthful lifestyle, self-care and avoiding burnout)
--pouring oneself out as a spiritual father (love and zeal for the Bride [the Church] and the world) conquers loneliness

When the shocking news broke, it was the only time in my life--since my conversion at 15--that I wanted to leave the Catholic Church and run screaming to the hills. A close friend even accused me: "You're a nun--you knew!" But I didn't. Nobody knew. Or very, very few people knew. I agonized for months over it. I couldn't understand. I thought priests and bishops were the good guys! I thought they wanted to protect and help people! I just couldn't figure it out. And then--through my study of Theology of the Body--I got a powerful insight: Men do NOT want to be Superman or the Lone Ranger. They do NOT want to break ranks. Men are HORRIBLE at whistle-blowing. They are all about BAND OF BROTHERS. And this is a good thing! Men are stronger together. They have each other's backs. They can provide for and protect hearth and home better TOGETHER. The problem lies when they BAND TOGETHER FOR EVIL. To hide each other's sins. To give each other a pass for their sins. Look the other way. Code of silence. Complete corruption. Whole cities run on this notion. But it doesn't have to be this way. 

MEN NEED TO BAND TOGETHER FOR THE GOOD. Positive peer pressure. And call each other out when they need calling out. So, guys? Join some good guy thing to do charitable works together, pray together or just hang out together. Live by the "10 Commandments of Chivalry" (except the showing no mercy to the infidel part). And always, always BAND TOGETHER FOR GOOD, NOT EVIL.

"The Long Lent of Sex Abuse Survivors and the Road to Recovery": (excellent article from a Boston woman)

A man (whose son is already a priest) who was abused by a priest as a teen and is now a candidate for the permanent diaconate has this to say:

"I would not have entered the diaconate program if I had a question about my faith at all.... My faith in the Catholic Church has never wavered one bit and never will. So I don't want this at all, ever, to be talked about as against the Catholic Church. This is to purify the men in the church by their sinful actions and their unlawful actions. It has nothing to do with the Catholic faith." --Ronald Vasek