The Conflict is a 1973 British made-for-TV movie, later edited and renamed as Catholics: A Fable.
Near the beginning of this movie, two monks living in an ancient stone monastery on an isolated rocky island off the southwest coast of Ireland look down out of a high window and watch a helicopter landing below them. A flying machine has never landed there before.
“That’s not the priest from Rome, surely,” says one of the monks at the sight of a young man getting out of the helicopter. “I shall say it is.” replies his Abbot, Tomás O’Malley, who is played by British actor Trevor Howard.
The hip-looking, modern, priest is played by a young Martin Sheen. He styles his hair in a pompadour, wears an Army-surplus-jacket, a black turtleneck shirt, black bell-bottoms with a big brass buckle on his belt, and mod boots–and carries a back pack. No sign of a Roman collar.
As the movie goes on, we learn that the priest who is emerging from the helicopter is named Father James Kinsella, he is a member of the same order as the monks on the island, and he is on a mission from the Father General in Rome.
The movie was based on a novel written in 1972 by a Irish Catholic turned atheist expatriate named Brian Moore, who also wrote the screenplay. I’d never heard of Moore before, but I found Graham Greene once said Moore was his “favourite living novelist,” and Moore once was called by another writer “the best well known of the obscure writers alive” (Moore died in 1999). I don’t have to agree with Moore’s reported hatred of the Church to admire his skill.
For example, Moore gets his own beliefs out of the way so deftly that he allows one of his characters, the zealous monk, Father Manus, to voice a logically and emotionally persuasive defense of the traditional Latin Mass. In this story, for some reason, perhaps a laudable, artistic reason, Moore gave what I think are the best lines to the Abbot and to Father Manus.
The plot is developed mostly through conversation, so I’m going to give you a few samples of the dialogue, to let the characters tell the story in their own voices, much better than I can do.
At first it seems the monks are in for trouble with their Father General only because they no longer celebrate the new Mass.
Dialogue #1: Father Manus Defends the Traditional Latin Mass
The Abbot introduces Father Manus this way, “When he was a little boy they told him it’s a sin to tell a lie, and I don’t think he’s told one since.” The plain spoken Father Manus (played by Cyril Cusack, an Irish actor) provides his defense of the traditional Latin Mass undiluted by any trace of tactfulness or diplomacy:
“We’ve been going on to the mainland and saying the Mass every Sunday the way we always did. In Latin the way we were brought up to say it. With the priest and the people facing the altar facing God. Changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The way that Jesus taught His disciples at the Last Supper. This is My Body. This is My Blood. Do this in memory of Me.
“God sent His Son on this earth, and He died for us, and that’s what the Mass is all about. And it’s just that. A commemoration of His death.
“And it was always in Latin. Because Latin is the language of the Church and that Church is universal. A fella could drop into a church anywhere in the world anywhere anywhere and hear the very selfsame Mass, the Latin Mass. It was in Latin, well that was part of the mystery. You weren’t just talking to your neighbor. You were talking to Almighty God.
“Well. what you are giving us now, there’s no mystery about that at all. It’s a mockery as far as I’m concerned. You’re not talking to Almighty God. You’re talking to your neighbor, that’s why it’s in English, or German, or Chinese or whatever kind of language. And of course the people see through it. Of course they do.
“If you could only see those people bareheaded when they see that piece of bread becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, with the mystery and reverence of the Mass. To put in its place… what?
“All this guitar playing and singing and turning around and touching their neighbors and all that sort of frivolity. For no other reason than to bring people into the church.”
Dialogue #2: Abbott O’Malley Explains How Everything Got Out of Hand
The Abbot sits down after dinner for a private talk with Father Kinsella, and as he swirls the milk around in his dish of tea, he says:
“You know what they call you? The Inquisitor.”
Kinsella laughs, “I’m hardly that.”
“What if you have a case of heresy on your hand? As the general’s man, you have the power to act against it.”
“Ah, this is the end of the twentieth century, not the beginning of the thirteenth? I mean, how can we even define a case of heresy today?”
“I’ll define this one for you. ‘Yesterday’s orthodoxy is today’s heresy.’”
“But Father Abbot, we are merely trying to create a uniform posture within the Church. If everybody decides to worship in his own way obviously that would create disunity.” We begin to realize that unity is highest remaining ideal left for this young priest.
The Abbott then tells Father Kinsella to drink his dish of tea, and he settles back in his chair to tell his side of the story.
“All right! Where shall I begin? Did you know Ireland was the only country in the world where once upon a time every Catholic went to Mass of a Sunday, everyone–even the men. Until the time of Pope John that was, when the new Mass came in. Well we were like everybody else, we obeyed orders. We went over to the mainland and said the new Mass in English. And the people stopped coming to church. Oh, some women, but the men and the boys stood outside smoking. So I worried. I said to the monks what on earth are we doing if we can’t persuade the people to come back into the church? It’s the priest’s job to keep their faith in Almighty God, and I don’t want to tamper with their faith.”
The Abbot is slyly telling the visitor that even though the new Mass was supposed to be more for the people, the people were having none of it. It reminds me of the exodus from the pews that I witnessed since the 1960s, in most places where the empty pews weren’t filled with immigrants after the new Mass was introduced. I realize that not everybody sees the emptying of the churches as the effect in a cause and effect relationship, however.
“So I decided we’d go back and say the old Mass in the old way, and that’s the whole story.”
Dialogue #3: Father Kinsella Reveals That the Visit Is Not Just About the Latin Mass
Father Kinsella replies to the abbot. “Well, hardly. This Spring you had twenty charter flights from Europe alone, and pilgrimage groups from the United States and Canada, so large in fact that no church could hold the crowds. So you set up shop on a big scale on Coom mountain, which in Cromwell’s time was associated with rebellion.”
“Yes,” the Abbot replies, thoughtfully, “that was a mistake, but at the time I didn’t see the connection. I just wanted to accommodate the crowds.”
Whether the author meant this or not, the parallels with the way the traditional Latin Mass was virtually outlawed in 1969 and the suppression of the old Mass by the Anglicans in Ireland under Cromwell are clearly drawn. The English government ruled the traditional Latin Mass could no longer be celebrated, priests were imprisoned and killed, and the old Mass was suppressed in favor of a new one in English with the priest facing the people. Of course, no priests were killed if they were caught celebrating the old Mass after 1969, but holdouts were censured as being disruptive, and priests who continued saying the old Mass were usually out of a job.
It makes one wonder. Was a comparison between the Cromwellian repression of the traditional Latin Mass and the post-Vatican II repression intended by the author?
Father Kinsella continues, “Mount Coom has become a place of international religious pilgrimage. We just learned that an American network is planning a special program on your Mass here, and Father General is very worried. You see that what is happening here is being interpreted by some commentators as a first stirrings of a Catholic counter-revolution.”
It’s interesting to me that, in the movie, when people around the world see there’s a place where the old Mass is being said, they start flocking there just for the chance to hear the Mass celebrated the old way in person again, just once.
Unlike what happened in the movie, in reality when the new Mass was introduced many laypeople, priests, and religious of both sexes left the Church, but many stayed. But their fervor was cooled. They had learned that an excess of piety and affection for the old ways was considered backwards. And so, when the traditional Latin Mass was made freely available again almost forty years later, there was no grand mass movement of the laity rushing to seek it out again (although there were a few survivors who had lived through the changes who had been praying and hoping for its return for nearly four decades who did exactly that).
All of a sudden the topic of the movie shifts away from the Mass. Even though the scenes are rendered realistically so as to place the events in a recognizable time, the 1970s, we suddenly realize that the movie is actually set in the unspecified future, after there has been a fictional Fourth Vatican Council, and at a time when transubstantiation has been denied as an article of faith and talks of a merger with all Christian denominations and Buddhists are scheduled in the coming months. The writer weakened the story by this shift in focus, in my estimation, because there is an order of magnitude difference between being forced to celebrate a revised form of the Mass in the name of unity and being forced to deny the miracle of the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood Soul and Divinity of Christ at the Consecration.
Father Kinsella also suddenly faults the abbot for allowing private confessions, and we learn that private confessions also were forbidden during Vatican IV. Why? “Private confession is distasteful to other groups within our ecumenical brotherhood.”
At this point in the story, for some reviewers when the movie was first released the story then seemed to verge on the heretical—unless you remember the subtitle introduced in the new title: “A Fable.” Even if you do remember its supposed to be a fable, the total effect is jarring. The idea that the Church could deny a basic doctrine of the faith seemed inconceivable, at least at the time.
The Abbot muses, “It makes you wonder. What does the Mass mean nowadays? In Rome, what does it mean?”
“The Vatican maintains that it is no longer obligatory for Catholics to believe that the bread and wine on the altar are actually changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, except symbolically.”
So it’s not just the new Mass that the monks must agree to celebrate, after all; they also are called to deny their faith in the miracle of transubstantiation. Accepting a new Mass is one thing, denying a central tenet of the Catholic faith is another.
So What’s It All About?
The great strength of this movie is in how it gives an accurate glimpse into the crisis some priests and laity went through when the new Mass was promulgated in 1969.
Overall, the struggle between the monks’ promises of obedience to their superiors on the one hand and their unwillingness to give up their strong faith in the traditions and doctrines of the Church on the other hand is dramatized very well. The acting is consistently touching and convincing.
It seems to me that the movie as whole is also especially timely now because it is about devout Catholics who are confronted with faith-shaking changes, and because nowadays many feel astonished that much-loved seemingly unchangeable doctrines are being challenged, and Catholics who love the traditions of the Church and clear statements about doctrine are being portrayed as rigid, and many are losing their jobs.
Near the end, one of the monks reproaches the Abbot, “We are no longer instructed to believe in the miracle of the Mass. How can a thing be a miracle one day and not a miracle the next day?” How indeed can anything that is a miracle one day not be a miracle the next day? And how can an action, such as cohabitation outside of a Catholic blessed marriage, which was known as a sin one day not be a sin the next day?
Those words remind me of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his letter to the bishops that accompanied his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which ten years ago removed most restrictions on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, which he dubbed the Extraordinary Form.
“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
You can watch the whole movie here.
Just as an aside, the movie is delightful in how it depicts the humble, devout, and hardworking life of the monks. The island where they live reminds one of the craggy island, Skellig Michael, used for the scene at the end of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The island where Luke Skywalker is founding standing on a peak in splendid monk-like isolation was actually the site of a medieval monastery, whose beehive huts are still found there. The location of the island where the monks live in the fictional monastery in the movie is, like Skellig Michael, off the southwest coast of Ireland near Kerry.
The monks live austerely in the chilly monastery, and do hard work outside most days in their habits, often donning slick, black macintoshes for protection against the frequent rain. They harvest seaweed and berries, raise sheep, and coax a few potatoes and other vegetables out of the rocky soil. In the scene where we are introduced to Father Malin, we see that the monks fish for salmon, but they keep the ones they catch in an ocean pond to sell to the mainland for much-needed cash.
But on that day, in honor of the visitor, Father Malin is instructed to bring two of the captured salmon into the kitchen. Because the monks are going to have the rare treat of salmon at dinner that night, the prospect causes great excitement, and the baked fish is presented to all around the table that night with great flourishes and reverence before anyone starts to eat.
“It’s the little things like that that keep us going,” the Abbott tells Father Kinsella. “The jam in our lives.”
The pleasures of watching this movie gave me a little something to be excited about also, providing a bit of jam in my life too.